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Beautiful Land, Ugly Addictions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For two centuries, the sick have come to an adobe church in this village in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The fine, talcum-like dust in the sanctuary’s tiny chapel is said to possess miraculous powers. Each year a few pilgrims leave their crutches propped up against the walls.

Now the town of Chimayo itself is suffering from an ailment that not even “the Lourdes of America” has been able to cure. It is a sickness that has shattered the lives of dozens of families here and many more in towns peppered across the stark but beautiful valleys and mesas of northern New Mexico.

Chimayo is the “heroin capital” of Rio Arriba County, a rural region of 34,000 people with one of the highest rates of drug overdoses in the United States. In all, nearly 100 Rio Arriba County residents have overdosed in the last half-decade, according to state officials, a death rate more than triple the national average.

The spread of heroin and cocaine in northern New Mexico has reverberated through the community like a series of biblical plagues, touching the lives of many people beyond the small minority who use the drugs.

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A series of drug-related crimes--ranging from the mundane and pathetic to the horrific--has triggered both a crackdown by federal agents and a small but growing protest movement against the state’s Republican governor, Gary Johnson, who has called for the legalization of drugs.

No one has been able, however, to stop the overdose deaths in Rio Arriba County. At least 19 county residents died last year, all but one of them male, most of them 30 or older.

‘Mom, Mom, I’m Afraid’

Allen Sandoval, 36, succumbed to heroin last June, about five miles up the road from the santuario at Chimayo. He left the world with several religious medals and cards in his pockets, along with 13 cents in change.

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Death surprised him outside his home, on the dusty ground of a town whose bleak, narrow streets resemble those of an impoverished Latin American village. A few hours before he died he used a pocketknife to carve his initials in the tree that looms over his mother’s front porch.

“He would say, ‘Mom, mom, I’m afraid. I don’t want to die,’ ” said Olivama Sandoval, his mother. “But we couldn’t help him. He was so afraid of death, and look where he’s at now.”

Sandoval was laid to rest in June in the town cemetery, next to a friend who died two months earlier, also of an overdose, his body discovered in his bed by his mother.

Others have been found in their bathtubs, sitting in ice water, a fellow addict’s last-ditch attempt to shock a heart into beating again. Many more have been dumped off at an emergency room in nearby Espanola.

Heroin use has been on the rise across the United States since the early 1990s. Emergency room admissions for heroin overdoses have doubled since 1991, with the most dramatic increases in overdoses in urban centers such as Baltimore and Newark.

No one can say with certainty why drug addiction is so rampant in this corner of the Southwest, a place of dramatic ochre and rust-colored vistas that is often seen by outsiders as synonymous with spiritual purity.

Some speculate that the proximity to Mexico has brought the area an especially potent mixture of the “black tar” heroin produced there. The drug is easy to find in places such as Espanola and Cordova. A recent study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that the availability of heroin in rural areas now matches that of big cities.

Nearly everyone agrees that the region’s unrelenting poverty is a factor. In overwhelmingly Mexican American Rio Arriba County, the poverty rate is about 30%, reflecting the century-long decline of northern New Mexico’s subsistence farmers.

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Lauren Reichelt, director of health services for Rio Arriba County, said the drug problems are spurred in part by “cultural dislocation and cultural oppression. People are in pain.”

An Epidemic in Pastoral America

The epidemic has reached its most intense proportions in the isolated settlements in the region, in places such as Cordova (population 700), where at least six residents have died of overdoses in the last few years.

The town’s plaza, the site of a small church, is surrounded by dirt streets barely wide enough for a car to squeeze through. Rain has carved deep ruts into the roads, and a pair of gutted adobe buildings loom nearby. Several inebriated men, their reddened faces already numb by late morning, greet a visitor. (County health officials say alcoholism is a significantly more widespread problem than heroin use.)

William Trujillo, a slight man of 49 standing in a sour cloud of alcohol, said he too had used heroin for a few years. “Don’t ever mess around with that kind of thing. It kills.”

Heroin, a sedative, soothes its users with a brief but powerful sense of euphoria. It erases all discomfort of body and mind. It makes the weak feel strong and the lonely feel loved. Then its magic wears off--after minutes, or hours--leaving its users even less able to face pain than before.

“For a long time heroin wasn’t big around here,” said Anthony Trujillo, a church deacon in nearby Santa Fe. “All of a sudden, in the last few years, it’s the drug of choice. . . . I don’t think there is anyone in Rio Arriba County who has not lost a friend or a relative.”

Men and women in their 50s with a lifetime of alcohol abuse behind them are now hooked, as are teenagers bored with the predictable pace of a small town.

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Jonas Trujillo (no relation to the deacon) is a teenager from Chimayo who recently spent three months using heroin.

“People just see it as regular,” said Trujillo, a young man with short-cropped hair and a severe, humorless expression. A fervent evangelical pastor has helped him escape the drug, he said. “The Lord made himself known to me. He showed me how the devil is taking down the land.”

A Rash of Crime Afflicts Region

Drug abuse has fed a wide variety of crimes across the state, police officials say, with the crime rate increasing in New Mexico each year since 1993, bucking a nationwide trend.

A substitute teacher at Espanola Middle School was arrested in 1998 for selling heroin outside the school grounds. At least 1 in 4 homes in Chimayo is burglarized each year, according to the New Mexico State Police.

Perhaps the most notorious drug-related crime in recent years was the 1998 carjacking and murder of 18-year-old Erik Sanchez, a standout student from Espanola. Sanchez’s captors took him to a bridge over the 600-foot-deep Rio Grande gorge and threw him over the railing--it remains unclear whether he was still alive. The assailants, two men from Taos, allegedly wanted to sell his car for drug money. One pleaded guilty to the murder and is serving a life sentence; the other is scheduled to go to trial this year.

Sanchez’s mother, Donna Garcia, has since become a fixture at rallies staged by the anti-drug movement here, which is also seeking expanded treatment facilities for addicts. At one gathering in January at the state capitol in Santa Fe, Garcia wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with her son’s photograph and the words, “My lost treasure.”

For law enforcement officials, the most violent crimes bear the hallmarks of heroin and cocaine addiction as desperate addicts resort to ever more brazen crimes to feed their habits.

“You think of heroin as an urban problem, but it’s part of the fabric of this community,” said Capt. Quintin D. McShan of the state police. “We’ve got art, landscape, scenery and good, honest, hard-working people. We’ve got a lot of good things going on. And we also have heroin.”

In September, federal DEA agents, assisting overmatched state police and county sheriffs, descended on eight homes in Chimayo and nearby Santa Cruz in an early-morning raid in which 31 people were arrested on suspicion of distributing heroin and cocaine.

Capt. McShan said an increased police presence has helped lower the crime rate slightly in Chimayo, where, for a time, dealers had set up open-air drug bazaars on the highways. The open drug sales are a thing of the past, but the burglaries continue.

“It’s gone from being ridiculous to being just very bad,” McShan said. Robberies remain so common that “a lot of people don’t even bother to report them anymore.”

Overdoses reported at local emergency rooms are also on the rise. Some addicts switched to new drugs--taking a cocktail of Valium, alcohol and antidepressants--or found new suppliers who sold them heroin of dubious quality.

“When a person is addicted and they need a fix, they’re not going to ask what’s in it,” said Ben Tafoya, director of the Hoy Recovery Program in Espanola. “And if they can’t get ahold of heroin, they’re going to use any other drug.”

The rate of death from overdoses in the county has remained steady since 1995, about 20 each year.

Six autopsy reports of men who died last year show a pattern consistent with recent studies on heroin overdoses: All were longtime users who had also ingested large amounts of alcohol and other depressants.

In the mostly dispassionate reports, filed by state medical examiners in Albuquerque, there are also details that hint at lives marked by more than a few tumultuous, violent twists. The victims’ bodies themselves carry the signs of the years of hard living and self-abuse.

Autopsies Paint Tragic Picture

Peter Cordova, 34, was last seen alive several days before his body was discovered in his Espanola home. The coroner noted a fresh puncture mark in his left forearm and evidence that his heart and kidneys had been damaged by alcoholism. Heroin is metabolized by the body into morphine, and traces of that drug were found in Cordova’s blood, along with Valium and other prescription drugs, including amitriptyline, a powerful antidepressant.

Hours before his death, Genaro Trujillo, 54, had traveled to an Espanola clinic for a dose of methadone. He was last seen alive by his parents, snoring loudly on his bed. The coroner found old rib fractures, not related to his death, and a prosthetic eye.

Brian Romero, 27, left the world with a gallery of tattoos covering his body, each described in detail by an especially assiduous medical examiner: “a 12x4-inch tattoo of a woman and a dragon . . . a 2 1/2x1 1/2-inch tattoo of a cross and a flower . . . a 5x4-inch tattoo of a dog with a baseball bat . . . a 2 1/2x2 1/2-inch tattoo of a cross and the name ‘Tracey’ . . . “

Trujillo and Romero are both buried in Cordova’s cemetery, a small plot of land overlooking the town, with views of snow-capped mountains and a forest thick with pinon and juniper trees. In the circle of mourners at both funerals was their neighbor, Allen Sandoval, who later died of his own heroin habit.

Olivama Sandoval, a retired state employee, traces her son’s downward spiral to the night when he was 19 years old and his girlfriend’s father shot him. A bullet passed through her son’s forehead. “That shot messed him up. It affected his brain. He stayed like a little boy.”

He collected Social Security payments and lived with his mother. He started drinking and became something of a town punching bag, coming home from the plaza with black eyes and cut lips. His mother would run out to defend him.

Although she does not know exactly when he started using heroin, she does remember vividly the night he confessed that he was addicted. He fell to his knees at the foot of her bed and pleaded for help, a 29-year-old man sobbing like a baby.

“When things like this happen, you don’t know who to blame. One day I told him, ‘Why are you doing this to me? Since I found out you’re doing drugs you don’t know how my heart broke and it’s never, ever mended.’ Not a day went by when I didn’t think, ‘Is he going to be alive in the morning?’ ”

After at least seven years on heroin, in and out of rehab five times, Sandoval was once again on the waiting list for a clinic in Albuquerque when he overdosed and died.

His graveside service was in the old, rural style of funerals here, ending with a dozen neighbors and relatives taking shovels to cover his coffin with dry earth, building a mound they covered with votive candles and silk flowers.

In the small, 100-year-old brick house where Olivama Sandoval still lives, there are nights when she feels her son’s presence. “I hear him knocking, I hear his voice calling, ‘Mom!’ ”


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