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New Mexico County Confronts Curse of Addiction

Rural Rio Arriba has the highest overdose rate in the U.S. After several children were caught in the cross-fire, residents took action.

August 03, 2003|Pauline Arrillaga | Associated Press Writer

CHIMAYO, N.M. — This valley has been described as a place caught between heaven and hell: Its vistas inspire the mind and its soil is said to have healing power, yet it is a place of so much pain.

Makeshift memorials brand the landscape with crosses. Dirty syringes often rest nearby. Death haunts those who have lost loved ones to demon drugs and those who accept that they might be next.

Renee Martinez, 21, wears vacant, bloodshot eyes, a pendant of the Virgin of Guadalupe and an oversized T-shirt that shrouds her track marks. She has been using heroin for three years now, and cocaine for about half that time.

On a sunny morning, the 5-foot-1 addict and a friend scout the parking lot of a methadone clinic in Rio Arriba County, trying to hustle cash for their daily shot of the drug that cuts the craving for heroin.

Martinez explains that she is trying to quit, then acknowledges shooting up two days earlier and using cocaine the night before. "You meet up with your friends, they want you to score for them, then you end up getting high with them." Getting sober, she says, is "pretty hard here."

This is Rio Arriba's hell: For years, the county of 40,000 people in north-central New Mexico has had the highest drug-overdose rate in the nation; 20 people died last year alone. The killer often is heroin or a deadly cocktail of drugs that includes it.

In Chimayo, an old Spanish settlement where 3,000 people live, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration reported 85 deaths between 1995 and 1998 attributed to high-purity, black-tar heroin.

The plight is hardly unique to rural New Mexico.

About 16 million Americans use illegal drugs, according to the latest National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Use has increased among both teenagers and adults who abuse Ecstasy, marijuana, cocaine, painkillers, tranquilizers, heroin.

Communities are feeling the effects.

In tiny Willimantic, Conn., police scour the streets for heroin traffickers and prostitutes working to fund their habit.

In nearly a dozen towns across Appalachia, methadone clinics treat clients addicted to the painkiller OxyContin.

In Midwestern neighborhoods, police discover more methamphetamine labs every day: 2,725 last year in Missouri alone.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy wants to reduce nationwide drug use by 25% over the next five years. Deputy Director Mary Ann Solberg acknowledges that it's an ambitious goal.

"We know we don't have a prayer unless each community across this country works with us hand-in-hand," she told about 40 politicians, treatment providers, retirees and recovered addicts at a meeting last month in Rio Arriba County.

Yet her comments were met with some skepticism. Not unlike Martinez, Rio Arriba already has taken the first step. It readily acknowledges that it has a problem. The hard part is getting clean.

*

"Hey, Ness. Happy birthday, baby." Annette Valerio squats down, scoops up a mound of dirt with a garden shovel and firmly plants the paper plate that reads "Happy Birthday" in a rainbow of colors.

She continues until her daughter's grave is wreathed in cheerful decor, then sits on a bench and gazes at the photograph of a beaming young girl with hazel eyes and long ebony hair.

Venessa -- "my Nessie," her mother always says -- would have been 19. She would have graduated from high school, finished her first year of college, perhaps found a boyfriend, began to build a life.

Her mother still imagines all the missed moments even now, a decade after her 9-year-old was shot in the jugular by a heroin-addicted burglar who broke into their home to steal, among other things, the syringes that Venessa used to treat her diabetes.

"Her last words to me were, 'Mommy, Mommy,' " recalled Valerio, who also was shot on that stormy September afternoon in 1993. Her daughter bled to death in her arms, on the rose-colored rug that still carpets their living room.

Yet Valerio feels assured that her daughter did not die in vain. With Venessa's death and others, Rio Arriba began to recognize that it faced an epidemic.

From the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside Santa Fe, Rio Arriba County stretches north along tributaries of the Rio Grande through pastel-colored canyons to the Colorado line.

First settled by the Anasazi Indians and later the Spanish, the region is an intriguing blend of cultures. Pueblos where Indians produce pottery and beadwork intertwine with old Spanish villages in which artisans carve saints of wood and weavers inherit their craft and their looms.

Faith and family are paramount. Each year, thousands of pilgrims walk for miles to the Santuario de Chimayo on Good Friday to scoop handfuls of dirt that many believe can heal. Grandparents accompany their children and grandchildren.

Also handed down from one generation to the next: the curse of addiction.

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