The Chiva Game

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

"We've been receiving an increase in complaints from the downtown community regarding this particular problem, and we have responded, and we will continue to respond," says District 6 Commander Deborah Dilley.

In addition to numerous arrests made by District 6 mountain-bike and motorcycle patrol officers, undercover operations conducted by District 6 officers as well as officers from the central narcotics bureau go down almost every week and usually net between eight and twenty dealers and users. Following a sweep, the downtown heroin trade is suppressed for a day or two, and then the dealers pop back up again.

"The sale of heroin in downtown is more or less constant," says DPD Lieutenant Kris Kronke, who has overseen several undercover sweeps of heroin dealers over the past few months. "When you start to do a sweep, word spreads pretty fast and they close up shop for the day, and we catch the stragglers. It's a chess game."

Civic Center Park marks the eastern border of the 
heroin dealers' turf.
Anthony Camera
Civic Center Park marks the eastern border of the heroin dealers' turf.

Enoc's been instructed on how to spot undercover narcs: Listen for the soft crackling of their hidden radios; look for them to suddenly change the way they walk from a normal gait to a zombie-like junkie shuffle when they approach; beware of anyone who acts like they're "junk sick," or suffering from minor withdrawal systems but whose nose doesn't actually seem to be running. If Enoc is suspicious of a stranger who's acting like a homeless street junkie, he's been instructed to ask him to pull up his sleeves so that he can check his arms for track marks. And if any police officer tries to arrest him, he's supposed to run and swallow his balloons on the fly.

The cops are aware of this tactic and have developed an effective, if distasteful, countermeasure.

If they see a suspect clearly swallowing balloons, police arrest him, take him to Denver Health Medical Center and force him to ingest a powerful laxative. They gather the evidence when it comes out the other end. But such busts are at best a short-term solution. "We can put them in jail or deport them, and there will be ten or twenty guys to take their place," says Kronke. "They're cannon fodder."

Enoc doesn't mind being a pawn of the enemy in the never-ending War on Drugs. His ambition was to come to America and make money for himself and his family, and he's fulfilling this ambition. He understands that it's the job of the cops in Denver to bust him, in the same way it was the job of the Border Patrol agents in Arizona to hunt him down in the desert. To his way of thinking, they're pawns, too, just of a different color.

"Work is work," he says. "They are doing their work, and I am doing mine."

The War on Terror has played hell with the War on Drugs -- at least on the heroin battlefield. The production of opium poppies in Afghanistan was crushed by the Taliban regime, whose D.A.R.E. program consisted of chopping the hands off anyone caught growing the flowers. Today, opium farming in Afghanistan is booming bigger than ever, and there's a glut of opium resin on the world market. As a result, the street price of heroin is down in Denver, and purity levels are way up. Simultaneously, HIV infection rates among intravenous drug users across the American West are decreasing because of the increased purity and popularity of black tar. It's gummier than heroin in years past, forcing IV users to repeatedly flush out their syringes between each use and further deterring them from sharing their precious needles.

The black-tar heroin sold in Denver is some of the strongest in the world. The average purity of black tar in the U.S. is 41 percent, with the remainder of the dark goop being adulterants and profit-enhancing "cuts," including ground-up metal, sand, lactose and crushed wood. During the Taliban era, when the supply of opium resin was sharply curtailed worldwide, black-tar purity levels dipped as low as 5 percent, with the national average at 22 percent.

Tests of heroin seized in recent downtown-Denver stings have revealed purity levels of 50 to 60 percent.

"The purity of heroin today is much higher than it has been since at least the early 1980s," says the DEA's Reuter.

But even though the heroin sold in Denver is stronger, officials say the drug is less of a threat to public health and safety than crack cocaine and methamphetamine. Meth-related fatalities in the Denver metro area have nearly doubled over the past four years, while heroin indicators, including emergency-room admissions, poison-center calls, treatment-center admissions and overdose deaths, have remained stable.

The one notable recent change in heroin-use patterns is a sharp spike in the number of users who are smoking black tar instead of injecting it. According to a report released earlier this year by the Colorado Department of Human Services' Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division, treatment centers around Denver are reporting large increases in the number of people seeking treatment after becoming addicted to heroin by smoking the drug. Most of these users are white and live in the suburbs. Many of them work downtown.

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