The county consists of the town of Xalisco and 20 villages with a total population of 44,000 -- about the size of Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood. Landless sugar-cane workers, eager to grasp their version of the American Dream, provide a virtually endless supply of labor for the heroin networks, one reason the system has proved so hard to eradicate.
The rise of the Xalisco networks is a peculiar tale of dope, poverty and business smarts that connects a remote corner of Mexico with vast stretches of America's heartland.
Max tells his story
Two pioneers of the Xalisco model met in the early 1990s in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, where they were serving time for drug offenses. One of them agreed to discuss the system's beginnings and its spread on the condition that he be identified only as Max, an alias he said he used as a heroin dealer.
Max said he was familiar with the U.S. heroin trade and that his partner, a native of Xalisco, had access to supplies of black tar and workers from his hometown. When the two were released from prison, Max said, they set up a heroin ring in Reno.
At the time, dealers sold heroin from houses, which police could easily target. Max and his partner had a better idea: Dealers could circulate in cars and receive instructions via pager (and later by cellphone).
Soon a system evolved: Drivers carried heroin doses in their mouths in tiny uninflated balloons, each about the size of a pencil eraser. Addicts dialed a number, as if ordering pizza. The dispatcher would page the driver with a code indicating where to meet the addict.
If drivers were busted, the small amounts of heroin and the absence of paraphernalia reduced the risk of lengthy prison sentences. To avoid attracting attention, they dressed modestly, drove beat-up cars and never carried weapons.
From Reno, the partners expanded to Salt Lake City, Denver, Honolulu and other cities.
Max said the heroin was manufactured in Xalisco. According to court records, dealers and investigators, the Xalisco entrepreneurs paid the Arellano-Felix cartel for permission to take it across the border in Tijuana.
The heroin wound up in the Panorama City apartment of a couple from Xalisco, who repackaged it and sent it to the networks via courier or Federal Express, according to federal court records.
Max, who went to federal prison for his role in the scheme, said one reason the system did not evolve into a cartel controlled by one person or family is that Xalisco County is made up of ranchos, small villages famous for their independent spirit and intense rivalries.
"We're real envious of each other. Families cannot work together," he said.
Still the system was there for anyone to use. It also appeared in Southern California, where many Xalisco immigrants live. It's unclear whether those dealers copied Max and his partner or came up with a similar system on their own.
Returning frequently to Xalisco, immigrants compared notes on how to improve the business model. As word spread, more farm boys went north to see how it was done. Youths hired as drivers would learn the business, then go back home and secure their own supplies of black tar. They returned to the United States as crew chiefs.
"Whoever gets the customers, it's because he's got better stuff or better service," Max said. "Nobody tells anybody what to do."
New business model
In the summer of 1995, Ed Ruplinger, a sheriff's narcotics investigator in Boise, noticed Mexicans tooling around town selling heroin packed in small balloons hidden in their mouths.
After arresting a few of them, Ruplinger found they were from a place he'd never heard of: Nayarit, Mexico. Tapping their phones with court approval, he discovered most of the calls were placed to a man named Cesar "Polla" Garcia-Langarica in Ontario, Calif.
"He was the first McDonald's in town, so to speak," Ruplinger said.
Almost all of his calls were to people in Xalisco, later identified as his assistants.
Ruplinger determined that Garcia-Langarica also had cells in Portland, Ore., Honolulu and Salt Lake City. He overheard him saying he'd moved into Boise because competition from other Xalisco networks had forced him out of Denver.
Boise wasn't Garcia-Langarica's for long either. One of his former drivers became a competing crew boss. Still, "they were not shooting each other in the street," Ruplinger said. "They'd know each other. It was just a job. I kept realizing that this is huge."
In 1998, officers raided apartments in Boise. Five of Garcia-Langarica's employees pleaded guilty and received prison terms. Garcia-Langarica, who was also indicted, remains a fugitive.
In Portland, black-tar heroin had been dealt on downtown streets by Hondurans or Guatemalans -- until the late 1990s. Then, police noticed that new dealers, all from Nayarit, were making deliveries by car all over the city.