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Beautiful Land, Ugly Addictions

Heroin overdoses pervade rural New Mexico region that is often seen by outsiders as synonymous with spiritual purity.


CHIMAYO, N.M. — 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.

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.

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.

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.

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