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Lessons from New Mexico's War on Heroin

New Mexico's Espanola Valley is characterized by historic buildings such as the Santuario de Chimayo, which dates back to the early 1800s -- and by an entrenched heroin-abuse problem.
Marisa Penaloza, NPR
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New Mexico's Espanola Valley is characterized by historic buildings such as the Santuario de Chimayo, which dates back to the early 1800s -- and by an entrenched heroin-abuse problem.
Spaniards first settled the Espanola Valley along the Rio Grande more than 400 years ago. Though Chimayo's drug-related problems have improved since 1999, the heroin traffic has moved to surrounding communities in the Espanola Valley.
Melody Kokoszka, NPR /
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Spaniards first settled the Espanola Valley along the Rio Grande more than 400 years ago. Though Chimayo's drug-related problems have improved since 1999, the heroin traffic has moved to surrounding communities in the Espanola Valley.

The successes and limits of the nation's drug war are being played out in northern New Mexico, where the Espanola Valley has long been an epicenter of heroin abuse. Despite a crackdown by law enforcement, the region continues to have the nation's highest per capita overdose death rate.

Until recently, the historic town of Chimayo, N.M., a half-hour north of Santa Fe, was famous for an epidemic of Mexican black-tar heroin use. Stoned young people died in highway accidents. Junkies murdered victims for drug money. People were afraid to leave their houses, fearing a break-in.

In September 1999, a massive assault force of federal, state and local police swooped down on Chimayo, hauling off members of families who had for years been suspected of selling heroin. Since the raid, locals say the daily violence, overdoses and burglaries are far fewer. Residents have started several civic and youth groups to help keep young people out of trouble.

Life in Chimayo has improved markedly, but the drug traffic has moved to surrounding communities in the Espanola Valley, bringing with it the same overdoses and property crimes. Six months ago, federal authorities staged a second big raid in the valley. This time, they arrested scores of Mexican nationals who had picked up the drug business left by the jailed Chimayo pushers.

Dr. Fernando Bayardo, a local anti-drug activist, notes that heroin abuse has been entrenched in the valley for more than 50 years. In many instances, whole families share the dependence, adding another obstacle to efforts to stamp out abuse.

"You have a grandmother shooting up with a grandchild," Bayardo says. "You have family members shooting up together. It's not something the teenage son hides from other family members. How are you going to change those unhealthy lifestyles and habits and develop new norms?"

This story was produced by Marisa Penaloza and edited by Andrea de Leon.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.