The state of Nayarit could be called the North Dakota of Mexico: it’s not that easy to get to and there aren’t a lot of reasons to go there. The Mexican resort cities like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta are further south, it’s the least populace state in Mexico, and its major crop is sugar cane. Poverty is a constant, especially on the ranchos – the small villages on the outer edges of the cultivated areas. There’s an innate desire on the part of young men of the area to become successful. For them, that means building a large house, having a ranch with horses rather than a sugar cane farm, paying for a band to entertain at a festival. These are the concrete signs of prosperity.
In the state of Nayarit is the small town of Xalisco. With Spanish the X, like the J, is pronounced as H, so it sounds the same as the neighboring state Jalisco, but the resemblance ends there. The state of Jalisco has the prosperous city of Guadalajara as well as the resorts of Puerto Vallarta, while the town of Xalisco is a dusty farming community. But in the mountains outside of Xalisco the natives grow the opium poppy from which they make black tar heroin.
A Different World
If you did street interviews with passersby, asking them to describe heroin, most people would likely talk about images they’ve seen in movies: brick-like blocks of white powder imported from Southeast Asia that is then cut (diluted) with other white powders like confectioner’s sugar before its weighed and put in small glassine bags for sale on the streets. Or they might talk about the DEA’s news conferences where they parade large quantities of contraband that have been taken off the streets by their efforts. The bigger the haul, the bigger the news.
The world of black tar heroin is completely different. For one thing, its name is descriptive: this heroin is sticky and dark, nothing like the powdery China White variety of the drug. There’s also a huge difference in potency. China White will be cut by middlemen and dealers all along the distribution chain. When it reaches the street, the heroin has a 10th of its pure power left. Black tar, on the other hand, can’t be cut down easily. The refinement process takes away some of its potency, but it retains 60-80% of its pure power. Rather than buying a bag an inch square filled with the powder, black tar comes in doses of a tenth of a gram, rolled into a ball about the size of a BB and put in a small balloon for sale.
There have been drug trafficking families and cartels in Mexico for decades. In the 1970s and 80s, there was the Herrera clan that sold a brown powder heroin known as Mexican Mud. The Chicago police estimated the Herreras took about $60 million dollars of drug profits out of that town alone, and the Herreras were active in Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles, and many other towns. Then there’s the Sinaloa Cartel, from the state just north of Nayarit. The Sinaloas were notable for their brazenness and their violence. The head of the Sinaloas, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, has been in the news recently with his brazen escape from prison as well as his recapture. “El Chapo” sounds like a scary nickname, though it actually means “Shorty.”
Several young men in Xalisco in the late 1980s decided to emulate the Herreras and import black tar heroin from Nayarit to the United States to make their fortunes. They started in Los Angeles and jumped across to Hawaii where they had major success, and from there they crept eastward across the country until they were operating in every state. What separated the Xalisco boys from other distributors is their method, which completely rewrote the book and allowed heroin to flow into small town America.
They learned from those who went ahead of them. The DEA loved big busts but tended to ignore small operations. The Xalisco men applied supply-on-demand distribution to drugs. Rather than having a huge stockpile sitting around, ready to be raided by the Feds, they would import drugs as needed in small amounts. Their favorite way to get their supplies was to have the drugs stuffed into a small appliance like a toaster oven and shipped by UPS to the local distributor. It was years before the DEA realized the size and scope of the Xalisco operation.
The distributor would have an underling who received phone calls. When they entered a new city they’d get cell phones and print up business cards with the numbers. They’d search out methadone treatment centers and find a client there who’d be their introduction to the local drug addicts in exchange for a supply of heroin for themselves. The cards would be passed out, and orders would start coming in on the phones.
But the biggest innovation was how they got the drugs to their clients: they delivered. One of the most dangerous parts of heroin addiction was having to go into the worst parts of town to find dealers on the street corners. Addicts often had their drug money stolen before they could get their fix. With the Xalisco distribution, the operator at the other end of the line would schedule a meeting for the addict, usually in a public place like a strip mall, and say the driver would be there in a half hour. No more rip offs, no more danger.
The distributor treated it as a business, with discounts. If you bought your supply for the week, they might throw in the dope for Sunday for free. Each balloon would cost about $15.00 but they could offer seven or eight for $100.00. They’d also call the purchaser back to check if they were pleased with the service. If there was a problem, the distributor would try to resolve it. Without the fear factor involved, black tar heroin moved out amongst the general population. Where China White distribution was mostly limited to major cities, with black tar no town was too small to be touched by the drug.
In the classic drug distribution system, you had your turf and you’d fight off competitors. With the Xalisco system, there was no turf. You might have three or four different distributors working in a town. Instead of a single market, their business model was convenience stores. There was plenty of business for everyone. Also, since the distributors were all from the Xalisco area, they often knew each other. They’d even share product if one distributor ran short until a new supply came it.
At the street level there were plenty of young men in the Xalisco area who wanted to get into the business and would start as delivery men. The distributor would arrange for cars, often through a local client who didn’t mind registering vehicles in his name. They’d also find an apartment for their drivers to use and provide food, and they’d pay the drivers $1000-1200 a week to spend their days making deliveries. The drivers often couldn’t speak English and would have to communicate with clients through hand signals. Different from the normal image of illegal immigrants, the drivers had no desire to stay in the US. They wanted to make their money and then return to their village where they could display their new-found wealth.
When they drove, the men would keep their balloons of heroin in their mouths and have a bottle of water nearby. If they were pulled over by the police, they swallow the balloons – and away went the evidence. Even if they were caught, the small amounts of drugs they carried often meant that they were not prosecuted but simply turned over to ICE for deportation.
The drugs became a wave surging from west to east across the US. Strangely enough, though, they didn’t flood all areas.
Next: Part 5: Reverse Discrimination