Xalisco festival

People line up for a turn on the Himalaya carnival ride at the newly enriched summer festival in Mexico's Xalisco County. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

As a boy, Esteban Avila had only a skinny old horse and two pairs of pants, and he lived in a swampy neighborhood called The Toad. He felt stranded across a river from the rest of the world and wondered about life on the other side.

He saw merchants pay bands to serenade them in the village plaza and dreamed of doing the same.

He had a girlfriend but no hope of marrying her because her father was the village butcher and expected a good life for his daughter.

Then Avila found an elixir and took it with him when, at 19, he went to the United States. It was black-tar heroin, and selling it turned his nightmare into a fairy tale.

Avila was part of a migration of impoverished Mexican sugar cane farm workers that has had profound repercussions for cities and towns across America. Over the last decade and a half, immigrants from the county of Xalisco (population 44,000), in the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, have developed a vast and highly profitable business selling black-tar heroin, a cheap, potent, semi-processed form of the drug.

Their success stems from a business model that combines discount pricing, aggressive marketing and customer convenience. Addicts phone in their orders, and drivers take the heroin to them. Crew bosses sometimes make follow-up calls to make sure addicts received good service.

The heroin networks need workers, and the downtrodden villages of Xalisco County have provided a seemingly endless supply of young men eager to earn as much money as possible and take it back home.

As black-tar heroin ruined lives in the United States, it pulled the poorest out of poverty in Xalisco. Drug earnings paid for decent houses and sometimes businesses, and it made dealers' families the social equals of landowners. By addicting the children of others, they could support their own.

"I'd be lying if I said I was sorry," Avila said. "I did it out of necessity. I was tired of birthdays without gifts, of my mother wondering where the food was going to come from."

Boom times

Xalisco County begins a couple of miles south of the state capital of Tepic and spreads across 185 square miles of lush, hilly terrain. A highway curves through it to the tourist resort of Puerto Vallarta to the south.

The county seat, also named Xalisco, is a town of narrow cobblestone streets and 29,000 people. For many years, dependence on the sugar cane harvest kept the county poor. Houses had tin roofs, and few had proper plumbing.

Xalisco ostensibly still depends on sugar cane. But it is now among the top 5% of Mexican counties in terms of wealth, according to a government report.

Enormous houses with tile roofs and marble floors have gone up everywhere. In immigrant villages across Mexico, people build the first stories of houses and leave iron reinforcing bars protruding skyward until they save the money to add second stories. Often the wait is measured in years. In Xalisco, homes go up all at once.

Off Xalisco's central plaza are swanky women's clothing stores and law offices. Young men drive new Dodge Rams, Ford F-150s and an occasional Cadillac Escalade. Outside town are new subdivisions with names like Bonaventura and Puerta del Sol.

Xalisco's Corn Fair, held every August, is another measure of the town's newfound wealth. Twenty years ago, the fair's basketball tournament was a modest affair. Teams from surrounding villages competed against one another in ragged uniforms.

Then "the boys began going north and getting into the business," said one farmer. "The town just began to come up."

The tournament purse grew so fat that semi-pro teams began competing. Last year, with first prize worth close to $3,000, semi-pro squads from Mazatlan, Monterrey and Puerto Vallarta competed, each with American ringers. One local village sponsored a team made up entirely of hired players, reputedly paid for by a heroin trafficker.

Sharing in this wealth to varying degrees are 20 villages scattered across the hills south of the town of Xalisco. Esteban Avila was born in one of them, a place named for the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata.