In 2007, state narcotics agents busted the ring, arresting Ramirez, Palacios and others. Ramirez, sentenced to seven to 15 years for conspiracy to distribute heroin, did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.
Xalisco networks soon were operating across the Eastern United States. In Charlotte, Chris Long noticed them when he became a narcotics investigator in 2001, and he has been arresting dealers ever since.
"They're all from Xalisco," Long said.
Expanding from Charlotte, they carved out territories in Greenville, N.C., and Charleston and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"It will not go away," said Will Kitelinger, a Myrtle Beach narcotics agent. When a driver is arrested, a replacement arrives within two weeks and is quickly up to speed, he said. "They literally know where the customers live and go to their houses and introduce themselves."
Xalisco's Sanchez family turned Nashville into a distribution hub, according to federal investigators and an indictment. In 2006, they dispatched a young driver named Hector to Indianapolis to conquer new territory.
"We were looking to expand the heroin market to more places in the United States," Hector said by phone from the federal prison where he is serving time for conspiracy to distribute heroin. He was interviewed on the condition that his last name not be disclosed.
"They told me 'We're going to give you three ounces to go to Indiana.' You want to begin in a place that's clean and you make it grow."
Hector said he paid his drivers, all from Xalisco, $1,000 a week plus expenses. He soon had dozens of customers and was ordering new supplies every four days, he said.
"It was some of the strongest I've ever seen," said Floyd Warriner, a longtime drug user from Indianapolis who is serving a 10-year federal prison term for conspiracy to distribute heroin.
More than 50 Sanchez workers were arrested in a nationwide bust in 2006. But the Xalisco networks continued to proliferate, and their product began to appear in communities where users weren't prepared for its potency.
Among them was a small town in West Virginia, 160 miles south of Columbus, where before the fall of 2007, few people had ever heard of black-tar heroin.