Illegal drugs by the tons are smuggled into California each year by sea, by land and by air. Cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin are either produced in or pass through Mexico, where 50,000 people have been killed in the last six years in an escalating war among cartels. Some of the victims have been beheaded, mutilated or left hanging from bridges, not necessarily because of their involvement in the trade, but as a diabolical demonstration that the drug lords will stop at nothing to dominate the market.
Those drugs end up in every neighborhood in Southern California and every city in the United States, feeding a never-ending hunger. But few people north of the border seem to make the connection. The Mexican carnage is conveniently distant. It's Mexico's problem, not ours.
When a 24-year-old Echo Park illustrator and recreational drug user goes to a warehouse party or a dance club, she told me, cocaine, Ecstasy and other drugs are always available and often used openly. Given the horrific stories from Mexico, I wondered if the price of those drugs is ever a consideration.
"I do definitely realize that I have a connection to it, and it's sad," said the illustrator. "It's one of those things I'll try not to think about. It'll cross my mind and I'll push it out."
In 2011, the Los Angeles Police Department seized 11,378 kilos of cocaine, 3,426 kilos of marijuana, nine kilos of heroin and 304 kilos of methamphetamine, along with $16.3 million in suspected drug money, according to the department.
When you walk through the terminals at LAX, not everyone is carrying toiletries, socks and underwear in their suitcases. Several million dollars in cash was seized last year, officials said, much of it stuffed into luggage carried by couriers who were transporting drug payments.
In April, yet another panga boat was spotted off the coast of Malibu, and the Coast Guard took custody of three men and 80 bales of marijuana, which were valued at $1.6 million. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said that bumped the stats, since last October, to 51 arrests, with 14 panga boats and 11,000 pounds of marijuana seized.
But those busts and others never seem to nick the operations of the staggeringly rich and powerful cartels, nor do they do much to stem the availability of drugs or the insatiable demand by everyone from occasional recreational users to hard-core, seriously diseased addicts.
The drugs pouring into California don't all stay here, of course. Greater Los Angeles serves as a distribution point for drugs that get shipped through the nation. But we get our hands on a piece of the goods too.
"On the Southside, you'll see them slinging it in the streets. In Hollywood, it's in clubs or behind closed doors and you and I will never see it," a ranking officer in the LAPD's Gangs and Narcotics Division told me. "On the Westside it's the same thing, and we can't do any enforcement unless someone picks up the phone."
In some places, like skid row, there are no mysteries as to where the drugs are. On countless occasions, I've seen people selling, buying and using, and once watched a woman die of a heroin overdose on her way to the hospital. In other neighborhoods, the action is only slightly less concealed.
"It's ridiculously easy" to find drugs in the San Fernando Valley, a 48-year-old recovering cocaine addict named Josh told me.
Find a motel or liquor store near a row of apartment buildings in a so-so neighborhood, he said, go into the nearest alley, and someone will appear, asking if you want anything.
Josh got clean 15 years ago, works in construction and now tries to help other addicts keep from losing jobs and driving away loved ones, as he once did.
When I called the Cocaine Anonymous help line in the Valley, it was Josh who answered, and he offered suggestions on the many meetings I might attend to learn more.
"Every single walk of life you can imagine is covered in the meetings," said Josh. "As a matter of fact, at one meeting I go to there's a lawyer, a podiatrist, there's another lady who's a nurse.... All races, male, female, it doesn't matter." He sees lots of musicians, he said, as well as people in the entertainment business who work both behind and in front of the camera.
The cartels "wouldn't be in business without us," Josh said of drug addicts. But as for there being blood on the hands of those whose business is fought over by gangs that torture, kill and terrorize, he said he wouldn't go that far.
"Indirectly, yeah," there's a connection. "But directly, you're talking about Mexican Mafia-type people. They're going to do what they're going to do, regardless."
Maybe so, but I don't think it's that easy to wash our hands of any responsibility.
I recognize that any serious addict has a disease, and a chemical craving that can't be cured by an appeal to conscience.
But I'm appealing to the greater, collective conscience.
It's time to examine why we've built such a culture of addiction — whether the devil is alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs or illegal drugs.
It's time again to question every aspect of U.S. drug policy, and to consider a heavier reliance on prevention and treatment, with fewer resources thrown at the impossible task of cutting off the flow of drugs by land, sea and air.
Fifty thousand neighbors have been killed, many of them savagely.
That's almost equal to the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam War.
In Mexico, many of the dead were innocent victims of our cravings, and they are not done digging graves.