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The Chiva Game

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

Denver's heroin trade is controlled by Mexican organized crime, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police. Most of the heroin dealers downtown are young Mexican and Central American men, who have become as much of a fixture in the heart of downtown Denver as the souvenir shops on the 16th Street Mall. The dealers just stick out less. (Since May, Westword has interviewed over a dozen of them.)

Many of them are selling heroin to pay off thousands of dollars in debt to smugglers who spirited their families into the country. The young men sling dope downtown while their parents and female siblings work straight jobs under the table. Some, like Enoc, come to Denver alone and are recruited to sell heroin after they arrive. Others are recruited back home in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua or El Salvador by representatives of Mexican cartels, in the same fashion young South American women are hired by Colombian cartels to be drug couriers.

"You'll find a lot of these guys are from the same little places in Honduras, a lot of them are from the same villages in Nayarit, and that's definitely not a coincidence," says DEA Special Agent Dan Reuter, the agency's local spokesman.

The redesigned Skyline Park is still at the center of 
the action, particularly for users.
Anthony Camera
The redesigned Skyline Park is still at the center of the action, particularly for users.
With lofts on one side and restaurants on the other, 
Junkie Alley, bordered by 17th, 18th, Stout and 
Champa streets, is a popular shooting gallery.
With lofts on one side and restaurants on the other, Junkie Alley, bordered by 17th, 18th, Stout and Champa streets, is a popular shooting gallery.

"Since we tightened up on the drug-smuggling trade routes through Southern Florida in the late '80s and early '90s, Central America and Mexico have become the overland routes for the import and distribution of heroin into this country, as well as methamphetamine and cocaine, and drug organizations will recruit dealers along the smuggling routes and in places where they refine or manufacture the drugs."

Enoc says he lives a short walk from downtown in a house with five or six other Central American or Mexican men. Unlike Denver crack dealers, who may stand on the same corner for hours and wave cars down, Enoc stays mobile, walking ever-changing circuits around downtown from late morning to early evening. He's a traveling black-market salesman whose territory is loosely defined as Broadway to Wynkoop Street, 15th to 20th streets.

It's an irony of his life that after going through so much to come to America, his sphere of experience is limited to the downtown heroin underworld. During his six months in Denver, he has never been east of the gold-domed State Capitol Building or west of Invesco Field at Mile High, where he recently attended a Denver Broncos pre-season game. He does not own a car, he does not go out to clubs, and he does not dress to impress. He wears the cargo pants, a Broncos stocking cap and a heavy blue-and-white-checked flannel jacket with a mobile phone in each breast pocket. He wears no gold chains, no rings, no attention-grabbing "bling bling." His black Nikes are dirty and worn. He is short and slight of build. By nature and design, he's inconspicuous.

Enoc waits for his customers to signal him, either with a subtle nod from across the street or the passing, muttered query Tienes chiva?, which is probably the Spanish phrase his buyers use most often -- if not the only one they know, since they are almost all white Americans.

"I don't sell to my own people," Enoc says. "They're not spending their money on heroin. They're sending their money home, like me."

Few, if any, of the immigrant dealers use heroin themselves. Most say they don't even smoke pot.

Enoc won't say how many balloons he sells on a good day, or how much money he makes. He has a quota, and once he fills his quota, he's done for the day. Police estimate a street heroin dealer in downtown Denver pockets between $100 and $200 a day, tax-free. That's between 50 and 100 times the amount of money a Honduran field hand makes.

"For the amount of money an immigrant dealer can make in Denver in a couple of years, they say they can go home to Central America and buy a ranch with horses and live off that money for a long time," says Lee Hoffer, who worked for thirteen years doing HIV prevention work with downtown-Denver heroin users and dealers before writing his doctoral dissertation on Denver's underground heroin economy (see story below). "When you have the level of resource disparity that exists between the United States and El Salvador or Honduras, the phenomenon of the immigrant dealer in downtown Denver becomes unstoppable." Enoc says he's saving money to build his parents and three younger sisters a new house, one heroin deal at a time.

For all the subtlety of the ritual leading up to the actual deal, Enoc conducts the hand-to-hand transactions more or less in the open, motioning with a quick wave for buyers to follow him a few feet into the alley or behind an empty attendant's booth in a pay-by-the-hour parking lot -- or, if the street isn't busy, smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk.

Enoc has never been arrested, which means he's both lucky and good, because the Denver Police Department started coming down hard on his trade last summer with a series of undercover busts in Skyline Park, and the DPD hasn't let up since.

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