Land of Disenchantment

A native New Mexican digs for the roots of a tragic epidemic

  • A detail from the painting "Chiva," (Spanish slang for heroin).

    Nicholas Herrera
  • On their Good Friday pilgrimage to the Santuario in Chimayo, New Mexico, Ernie and Brandy Archuleta of Espanola, accompanied by a good friend, pass Holy Family Cemetery; Ernie says almost everyone buried there died from a heroin overdose. The friend, too, died from an overdose about a week after this photograph was taken

    Luis Sanchez Saturno, from a report in The New Mexican
  • Ernie Archuleta shoots up in his neck because it's the only place left in his body where he can hit a vein, he says

    Luis Sanchez Saturno, from a report in The New Mexican
  • A visiting friend, who has just overdosed, collapses in Ernie's kitchen. Ernie usually keeps the heroin-neutralizing drug Narcan at the house, but he had used the last of his - on this same friend - the day before

    Luis Sanchez Saturno, from a report in The New Mexican
  • A visit to the Holy Family Cemetery in Chimayo, where Ernie visits the graves of several friends, shooting up at the last one

    Luis Sanchez Saturno, from a report in The New Mexican
  • Counselor Polly Meyers leads a women's session in Espanola Valley

    Megan Bowers
  • The hands of a man attending a men's group session for recovering addicts

    Megan Bowers
  • A man's journal entry begins 'Today I have hope about my life getting better...'

    Megan Bowers
  • Ancestral farms in the Espanola Valley are being replaced by development: neighborhoods and towns are bedroom communities for affluent Los Alamos

    Megan Bowers

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Heroin is extracted from a poppy plant native to Europe and western Asia. These days, opium poppies are primarily grown by impoverished farmers in remote parts of the world. The heroin that comes to the Valley is largely from Mexico, whose poppy production increased dramatically after Mexico’s economic crisis in the 1990s. Traffickers follow the route of the Camino Real, or Royal Road, established by Spanish settlers more than 400 years ago. Today that road, widened and paved, is Interstate 25. It is still celebrated as the means through which northern New Mexico’s Hispano culture emerged, but ironically, it carries the drug that is killing the region’s people.

No one knows for sure when heroin first came to the Española Valley. Some residents remember relatives returning from jobs in distant cities with heroin as early as the 1950s. Others recall Vietnam War veterans who came home with addictions. The drug was firmly established in the Valley by the 1980s, known by residents as the golden age of the tecato — heroin addict in Chicano slang. Locals say heroin users of this period had a strict code of ethics, and didn’t allow their drug use to interfere with family or community responsibilities. If it did, problems were quietly handled at home.

Things began to change, however, in the early 1990s. "Before, everything was in private," says Silviano Maestas, a 52-year-old Valley resident and recovering addict. "It was a small group of guys, not bothering anyone. Pero things changed, no?" Suddenly, Silviano says, heroin use was "al aire libre," out in the open. "People didn’t care no more who saw them, or what they did to get it."

Strung-out addicts wandered the streets, often hitching rides to meet their dealers. Hypodermic needles turned up everywhere, even in the holiest places: in churchyards and cemeteries, and in the acequias, or irrigation ditches. The emergency room at the Española Hospital became a dumping ground for overdose victims — many of them abandoned by companions who feared arrest. Month by month, the death toll mounted.

Heroin use in the Española Valley finally hit the national news in the fall of 1999, when 150 law enforcement agents descended on the village of Chimayó and arrested 31 suspected dealers. The Raid, as it is known in the Valley, was a part of a larger interstate crackdown known as "Operation Tar Pit," named for the unusually pure strain of black tar heroin from Mexico that was causing a high number of overdoses.

Since the Raid, the media have issued an endless string of reports on the Valley’s heroin problem. The national media typically dwell on the irony of drug addiction in such a beautiful place. The local media focus on the most obvious impacts of heroin addiction: the crime and death. Each week, the "Police Blotter" of Rio Arriba County’s local paper adds to the litany of heroin-related sorrows. (That is how I discovered last summer that one of my neighbors had been busted for drugs. And it’s how I learned, one day last fall, that another neighbor had overdosed and died.) The constant media chorus adds to the collective sense that heroin has been here, as Hispanos say, forever.

These days, for the locals, heroin overdoses have become as much a part of the landscape as the juniper-dotted hills. "You get to a point where you kind of expect it," says 44-year-old recovering addict and Española resident Mary Ramírez. "Because you’ve already been through it — over and over." Mary knows; she used heroin for nearly 20 years. In the past five years, she has buried a husband and brother, both overdose victims. Last year, Mary’s eldest daughter overdosed, but survived.

Still, visitors are surprised — and horrified — by the enormity of the problem. "How could this place be a heroin epicenter?" a colleague from back East asks me. She cannot reconcile the Valley’s scenery with the dismaying reality. Journalists from around the country frequently express similar surprise — implying that heroin belongs more to urban ghettos than historic villages of cottonwoods and adobe chapels, as if poverty and addiction cannot exist in a bucolic setting. Perhaps it is precisely because this landscape has been so powerfully represented by generations of American artists — who typically render the land as scenery without people — that visitors are blind to the possibility of such a contradiction.

Whatever the reason, there has been little inquiry into why heroin has become epidemic here.

This is the question that motivates my research. Since I came to the Valley in the spring of 2004, I’ve asked everyone I meet why they think heroin is such a problem. I’ve interviewed drug counselors, health care providers, religious leaders and land activists. I’ve talked to over 40 heroin addicts, many of whom I met at the region’s drug detoxification clinic, when I worked the graveyard shift as a detox attendant.

The nights at the clinic were long and filled with sounds — prayers and cries and the shuffle of slippered feet. These were the sounds of my childhood, too, the sounds that reverberate in my memory and in my writing, along with the question: Why?

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