We have learned much about the opioid epidemic that takes four times more lives than murders each year in Jacksonville.
We know that it involves the abuse of prescription pain killers that had the false reputation as having a low risk of addiction.
We know that once people became addicted to prescription drugs they often found it easier to find low-cost heroin.
We know that a high overdose rate was occurring during a period of overall lower crime rates, “a happy surface over an ominous reality.”
But we don’t know much about this heroin trade, how it became so widespread and so effective.
The book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” tells the tale.
Author Sam Quinones is uniquely qualified to write this story because he had years of reporting in Mexico, the key source of the heroin.
The story was hidden in part due to society’s stigmas involving substance abuse and in part due to an ingeniously diabolical drug trade.
The heroin is processed and shipped from the western corner of Mexico. The state of Nayarit is a small state in western Mexico between the forested mountains of the Sierra Madre and the Pacific Ocean, especially the town of Xalisco.
But it also has a large number of dirt-poor residents, outcasts, some of whom illegally immigrated to the United States, especially California.
The first migrants settled in the San Fernando Valley where they worked jobs in construction, landscaping and restaurants. In the 1980s, a few families started selling black tar heroin.
But that was just the start. The heroin crew devised a business that was tragically successful in several key ways:
• It provided excellent customer service. Its trade was centered on middle-class people, so the dealers, using phones, set up meetings to trade drugs for cash. No drug houses that could be identified by police. No territory to be defended from gangs and the violence that accompanied it.
“Without legions of middle-class kids with cars,” Quinones wrote, “the Xalisco Boys’ business model didn’t work. In cars, kids shot up, gave rides to fellow junkies, hid their dope.”
• Dealers avoid attention from police by carrying small amounts of drugs and little cash in their cars and houses. They drive older, duller cars. They are never armed. They blend in, they don’t party. They rent apartments, give false names, sell their drugs and are gone six months later. Small drug busts often aren’t interesting to authorities. And when a runner was busted, he was easily replaced by another illegal.
• Since they only deal in small quantities, they know that someone looking for large quantities likely is a cop. The dealers then shut down and move.
• Their small cells are mistaken for isolated groups of small timers when actually they were part of a tightly controlled network.
• They avoid the big cities with lots of law enforcement and competing drug dealers. They focus on middle American cities with Mexican residents where many police don’t speak Spanish.
• They use connections with addicts to set up shop in new medium-sized cities in the heartland, starting with methadone clinics where they offered people free heroin.
“The Xalisco system succeeded because it reacted to how American cops traditionally worked drugs,” Quinones wrote. “Narcotics teams found barren apartments and peons; the money and most of the drugs were back in Mexico. This deflated cops and prosecutors. Thus, more so than any traditional drug network in the country, the Xalisco Boys were forcing law enforcement to rethink old strategies.”
• The illegal drugs were relatively cheap to Americans but produced riches beyond belief for the Mexicans. They were grossing $150,000 from each kilo. Their overhead included cheap apartments, old cars, gas, food and $500 a week for each driver. Profit per kilo was over $100,000.
“Young Mexican guys, clean cut, courteous and looking quite out of their element, were driving the town in old cars, delivering heroin,” Quinones wrote.
For police, it was hard to track them. Police looked at hours of surveillance tape for a few small bags of heroin.
Once police in places started arresting dealers, the dealers were easily replaced.
“Selling heroin was just easier than growing sugarcane,” Quinones wrote. “It was more adventurous and involved more cash.”
The illegals would take their cash and build houses in Xalisco, setting off a construction boom.
The Xalisco Boys sought new markets with higher profit margins for their drugs, awaiting the chance to go back home and show off their riches, “the kings of their dreamland for a week or two.”
The battle to end the epidemic of opioid deaths involves several fronts. One of them involves this diabolical Mexican drug empire.
Quinones said solutions to this massive epidemic require massive programs. He shared his thoughts as a rare single speaker to the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
One immediate solution is to transform jails into places of “nurturing and recovery” rather than tedium and isolation. This already is happening in some areas where smart justice programs both save money and lives.
But there are entire regions of the nation suffering from isolation where drugs are used to deaden the pain of despair.
“I believe this epidemic is calling on us to reverse the decades of isolation and come together as Americans,” he said. “I believe more strongly than ever that the antidote to heroin is not officers, it is not nalozone, it is community.”
Addiction is spreading in forgotten rural areas of the country where jobs and hope are scarce.
Quinones said communities must be rebuilt. He gave two examples in American history that can be used as templates: The Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II and the race to the moon led by President John Kennedy.
“Each involved government and the private sector acting in concert over many years bringing money, brands, energy and long-term focus to bear,” Quinones said.
“The Marshall Plan was about building ravaged regions to allow them to function independently while containing the viral spread of Soviet Communism. ... The Marshall Plan for American recovery will focus on rebuilding regions.”
The race to the moon not only succeeded but it produced benefits beyond space. “Simple human inspiration was beyond calculation,” Quinones said.
A major program to revive hard-hit rural areas require a massive effort but as Kennedy said, we do it not because it is easy but because it is hard.
“This offers opportunities to bridge the political polarization,′ Quinones said, “one of the few issues today that can do that. Do not miss this opportunity. It does not come around often.”
Quinones is right. A massive problem costing lives at historic levels requires a massive response.
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