The Chiva Game

American hunger for black-tar heroin has made downtown Denver the land of opportunity for immigrant dealers.

The black-tar heroin inside the party balloons inside the pockets of Enoc's baggy cargo pants came a long way to get to the corner of 18th and Larimer streets. So did Enoc. The heroin he's selling most likely originated in Afghanistan, where the more bombs fall and bullets fly, the more opium poppies bloom by the tens of thousands in huge fields, brilliant and beautiful, the color of bright-red arterial blood.

Enoc, who is making the rounds of downtown on this cold and soggy first day of fall, began his journey to Denver in the Honduran village where he was born and where he grew up, uneducated and short of food, seeing two options for his future: stay illiterate, poor and hungry for the rest of his life, powerless to help lift up his family even one small step; or migrate to the United States and find work. He didn't plan on landing in Denver and selling heroin for a living; it just worked out that way. But a damn good living it's proving to be for this teenage son of Honduran peasants. The dope dealer's creed is "Get Rich or Die Trying." But rich is relative. On the food chain of Denver drug dealers, Enoc is a bottom-feeder. By the standards of rural Honduras, he came to America and made it big. And he's only seventeen.

He left home in February, and his first stop was the same as that of most opium resin harvested in Afghanistan: Mexico. Enoc arrived in Mexico City at the end of a brutal bus ride all the way up from Tegucigalpa, only to endure another brutal bus ride north to Agua Prieta, Sonora, a border city just across the line from Douglas, Arizona. The opium was probably taken to a processing plant in rural Sinaloa or a massive border city like Juarez or Tijuana, where it was converted by crude chemical processing from raw opium to black-tar heroin, a gummy, resinous substance. In recent years, black tar has usurped powdered heroin as the most prevalent form of illicit opiate sold in Denver, as well as all America west of the Mississippi River.

Agua Prieta is a smuggler's hive, a staging area for thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans who undertake the perilous border-crossing into the U.S. every night, playing hide-and-seek in the desert with bandits, vigilante ranchers and U.S. Border Patrol agents in Humvees. Enoc didn't have the money to hire a coyote, a professional smuggler of humans who knows the routes around motion sensors and watchtowers. Instead, he banded together with other destitute Central Americans and dared the crossing, night after night. Four times he was caught. Four times Border Patrol agents dumped him right back over the line in Agua Prieta, where he would rest for a day, then try again. On his fifth try, he made it all the way to a back road just north of Tombstone, Arizona, a 36-hour hike from the border, where for $200 -- his life's savings -- he bought a ride to Los Angeles in a passenger van.

When he was in Honduras, Enoc's life was close to worthless in the global economy. But as soon as he crossed the border into the U.S., he was transformed into a valuable commodity. He worked as a day laborer in L.A. for five dollars an hour -- which was five, if not ten, times more than he might have made in a cheap-labor factory in Honduras. Some days there was work, some there were not. He stayed in L.A. only long enough to save cash for yet another bus ticket -- this one to Denver, where he heard that work was more plentiful and paid better. He came here intending to sweep floors, clean toilets, wash dishes. But within hours of arriving at the Greyhound station, he was recruited for a much-better-paying job by a man he refuses to talk about, because the man explained the rules to him, and one of the rules is, when it comes to questions about who gives him orders and supplies him with balloons, if Enoc talks, he dies, and his family in Honduras, maybe they die, too.

One detail, of course, he is at liberty to disclose: the price of the balloons in his pockets. There are two colors. The orange balloons each hold one-tenth of a gram of black tar, about one dose for a regular heroin user, and they cost twenty dollars apiece. The blue balloons contain a quarter of a gram, and they cost forty dollars. Larger purchases can be arranged in less than one hour.

"I have the best chiva," Enoc says, employing the most common Denver street-slang term for Mexican heroin, which is also called "black" and "H." "The strongest, the most pure. I can have for you as much as you want, but you have to buy it downtown. If you want the chiva, you come to me. I don't come to you."

Denver drug users who buy on the street know that if you want crack, you go to Five Points or to East Colfax Avenue or to 13th Avenue and Pearl Street in Capitol Hill. To buy pot, you go to Civic Center Park. But for heroin, you go downtown, and you seek out the nondescript young men with cinnamon skin and wary eyes.

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