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Sunday, June 13, 2004

Death grip: Heroin�s hold on Northern New Mexico remains strong despite years of effort

Death grip: Heroin�s hold on Northern New Mexico remains strong despite years of effort

Nearly five years ago, federal drug agents, along with state and local police, broke the pre-dawn silence of a cool September morning in the Española Valley with the sounds of helicopters and squad cars.

Within hours, more than 30 people indicted on federal drug-trafficking charges had been arrested in the multiagency drug raid in Chimayó and Santa Cruz. They were shipped off to jail in police vans that drove along the narrow, winding village roads, many of which were littered with syringes used to fill the veins of the community with black-tar heroin.

The highly publicized bust was the culmination of a 10-month operation that included evidence gathered from undercover agents and testimony from confidential informants. It was an operation aimed at loosening heroin’s death grip on the valley.

Four drug rings — including the Barela, Gallegos and Martinez families — were broken up. For years, those families were suspected by authorities to have supplied the valley with heroin smuggled into the country from Mexico.

“We’ve taken a very significant bite out of the ... well-established narcotics distribution (in the Española Valley),” proclaimed then-U.S. Attorney John Kelly as he stood on the steps of a federal courthouse after the raid. “We’ve arrested the major players in the organizations, but this is just the beginning of addressing the heroin problem.”

Five years later, neither the federal Drug Enforcement Administration nor the U.S. attorney’s office would respond to specific inquiries about whether they now view the 1999 raid as successful.

But Rich Newman, deputy chief of the New Mexico State Police, said that although the raid nabbed people at all levels in the drug operations, “As long as the demand is there, it’ll come back.”

While the organizations pushing the drugs took a big hit in the 1999 raid, it now appears that it was, at best, a Band-Aid that provided only a temporary fix to the epidemic. Heroin is still in the valley.

Burglaries have dropped significantly in Chimayó since the 1999 raid — 146 in 1999 compared to just 34 in 2003. And some programs have tasted success, like state District Judge Michael Vigil’s drug-court program in Santa Fe.

But addiction to black-tar heroin is still high, despite the millions of dollars pumped into the region for treatment and prevention. The per-capita overdose rate in the area is now six times the national average.

“It’s still a huge problem in Northern Santa Fe County and Rio Arriba County,” said Newman, the state police deputy chief.

Five years ago, The Santa Fe New Mexican published a special report on the heroin epidemic in the Española Valley. Now, after the public declarations and millions of dollars in funding for treatment and prevention programs — and after the pushers of the drugs were supposedly pushed out of the area — the newspaper is taking another look at the hold heroin has on our community in a special section, “Heroin: Revisiting Rio Arriba County.”

Today, most of the 34 people arrested in that 1999 raid are out of jail, and many are now completing their probation. Many received plea deals from federal prosecutors that allowed numerous charges, and decades of prison time, to be dropped in exchange for guilty pleas to lesser charges. Some of those deals included leniency in exchange for information that might lead authorities up the chain of the drug world.

1st Judicial District Attorney Henry Valdez, whose office prosecutes state-level crimes in both Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties, acknowledged that arrangements are sometimes made with the lower-level users or street dealers in drug operations in an effort to gather information and evidence on the more integral players in the operations.

Each person arrested in the raid was offered some sort of plea deal with prosecutors. “That was probably because they assisted in the prosecution and the investigation of others and it merited a downward departure in their sentencing,” said Larry Gomez, first assistant U.S. attorney.

The heads of the families involved in the 1999 raid served the most time for their parts in the drug trade, while many others lower in the trafficking hierarchy — “street-level dealers” — were often given deals that called for under a year in jail and then a period of probation. Some of them did more time behind bars for violating their probation because their addictions kept them from staying clear of drugs.

Identified as the head of the Barela family heroin ring, 38-year-old Felix Barela pleaded guilty to maintaining a place for distribution and consumption of cocaine and heroin. He was sentenced to six years in a federal prison. Josefa Gallegos, the 56-year-old grandmother convicted of heading her family’s drug-trafficking ring, was sentenced to six years in a Dallas prison. Jose “Fat Jose” Martinez served 21⁄2 years in prison for his part in the operation.

The government seized homes belonging to some defendants, as well as Felix Barela’s horse, Red Hot Mag, after it was determined the mildly successful racehorse had been purchased with drug money.

Newman said state police, and the multiagency Region III Drug Task Force, have ongoing undercover operations in the Española Valley. Sometimes they result in immediate arrests; other times, they are building cases for large-scale arrests.

“We’re continually working to keep those street-level dealers under control and stop some of those other crimes, like burglaries, that are primarily used to fund somebody’s addiction. ...,” Newman said. “Ultimately, though, we always try and work to the top of an operation if we can do that.”


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