The Chiva Game
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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
"We're seeing heroin cross all socioeconomic lines," says Reuter. "With the purity levels so high, you can smoke it and get just as high as injecting weaker heroin. And smoking it overcomes the social stigma of track marks and needles, so it becomes more socially acceptable, even though it's every bit as addictive and every bit as dangerous."
The most popular method of smoking black tar is to melt it on a thick sheet of aluminum foil and then inhale the tendrils of smoke through a straw or tube, which is known as "chasing the dragon." But when you chase the dragon, you're still playing with fire. The Mexican and Central American dealers downtown say they've seen a rise in the number of their customers who are buying the drug to smoke instead of to inject. Other than methamphetamine addicts, more and more of whom are smoking black tar to come down off a speed rush, customers who chase the dragon tend to be more affluent. They have jobs and homes. The dealers prefer them to homeless street junkies.
"The bad junkies, they're always asking if they can pay half now, pay half later, and they only ever want a little bit in the morning, and then a little bit at night, ten dollars at a time," says Edel, a 22-year-old dealer from San Salvador who's been in Denver almost a year -- long enough to learn the term "yuppie," which he works into his Spanish. "I'd rather sell to the yuppies," he adds. "They buy more at once, and they always have all the money for you. And they're just nicer people."
Edel says his customers are almost evenly divided between the stereotypical, downward-spiral intravenous-use junkies who either live on the street or are close to it, and the dragon-chasers that most people would never guess are regular heroin users.
Watching Edel do business on a sunny Friday in late September is educational. His lunchtime and late-afternoon customers alternate between young men and women in business attire and rattily-dressed street junkies.
"Heroin buyers downtown are maybe about 25 percent your classic homeless or nearly homeless junkies. The rest have jobs; they have their lives somewhat under control," says Lee Hoffer, the former HIV intervention worker. "During my work in Denver, I knew a stockbroker who was a regular buyer, store clerks from Boulder, ordinary folk who absolutely do not look the part."
One of Edel's buyers is a 24-year-old woman who works as a receptionist at a downtown spa. She's wearing a sharp black suit over a tight, sleeveless top that shows off her arms, which are not only devoid of track marks, but well-toned from hours at the gym.
Delia [not her real name] looks the picture of health as she struts down 17th Street, her black jacket slung over her shoulder, and over to her car, which is parked in a nearby garage. Once inside her ride, she ducks down and, with a few practiced motions, melts the tenth of a gram of black tar she scored off Edel on a layered sheet of foil, sucking up the smoke through a thin glass tube. It smells like sweet incense laced with vinegar. This is what she does almost every day during her lunch break. Sometimes after work she scores another tenth of a gram and smokes it up before she goes to work out.
"I just love to lift weights while I'm high," she says, after exhaling her second hit. "Let's go outside. It's too nice to be in here."
Delia's destination is the newly reopened Skyline Park, which $6.5 million in city and private business funds has apparently transformed from a great place to buy heroin to a great place to enjoy its effects. She kicks off her Prada sandals and nestles on the grass with a satisfied hum. "This is yummy," she says.
Delia injected drugs almost every day when she was in her teens and living on the streets of downtown Denver. Then one night she overdosed and almost died. She woke up the next morning and wrote a poem, "Heavenly Hell."
High on smoked heroin, lying in the grass of Skyline Park, her eyes closed, she recites it from memory:
It takes no time to set it up
To prepare for the heavenly hell to come
There is no pain
When the needle hits the vein
And your mind is cumbersome
The blood rolls out
You plunge it in
It courses through your brain
Feels so good
Can't be sin
You'll never be the same again
A sweet taste in your mouth,
Blank look in your eye
Numbness in your soul
This feeling sweetly invades you
Then it takes complete control
There is no way to run away
Once it takes ahold
Its grip is firm
It holds on tight
To it, your soul is sold
So if you want to end your life
In pain, suffering, and sorrow
Stick a needle in your arm...
It's more demented than picking up a knife
And taking your own tomorrow.
It's been seven years since Delia last put a needle in her vein. She's never been off drugs entirely, she says, not since she was ten years old. It was coke for a long time, but then earlier this year she rediscovered heroin when she smoked it at a party, and now she's hooked again.
"I'm definitely addicted, but I'm functioning," she says. "It's a controlled addiction, and it's better for me than cigarettes. The thing about heroin is, when you think of the stereotype addict -- and there are a lot of them down here -- it's not the heroin that makes them look so bad, it's the lifestyle. They're living on the streets, they're not eating right, they're spending all their money on dope and they've got scurvy or whatever. It's not the heroin that makes them that way; it's the fact that they let the heroin completely take over. I know better than to let it completely take over. The trick is to do the drugs, and not let the drugs do you."
With that, Delia gets up, brushes off her slacks and slips her Pradas back over her pedicured toes. Her lunch break is over. The only sign that she's high is a slight constriction of her pupils and a little bit of slack in her smile. The stylists she books appointments for don't care if she's high or straight, she says. Half of them chase the dragon, too.
In Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs wrote that "junk is the ideal product and the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk is necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy. The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product."
For the immigrant dealers downtown, heroin's attraction is obvious: good money, no skills required. You don't have to read or write or convince your customers to buy. And, worst-case scenario, you get busted, you get deported, you come back on a bus that drops you right back where it all began, near Larimer Street in downtown Denver.
A few blocks from the bus station is an alley where the worst of the worst of downtown's street junkies shoot up. It lies between 17th and 18th and Champa and Stout streets. It's full of delivery nooks and back-entrance crannies where homeless addicts cook their black tar in the ripped-off bottoms of pop cans, then use torn-off cigarette filters instead of cotton balls to soak up the water and junk mixture before they plunge it into sunken veins with dull or broken needles. These are the junkies whose arms are pocked with bruises and leaking sores, who can't afford the Vitamin E oil and antibiotic creams and aloe-vera gels that IV users with money employ to prevent track marks.
The dealers don't care what state you're in. They only care if you have money. They're not bartenders; they'll never cut you off. But if Denver heroin users who buy downtown feel guilt about the money and precious time they're wasting, perhaps they can take solace in knowing their drug money is funding what amounts to a black-market developing-nation aid program.
"I don't do drugs. I don't know why anyone does drugs," says Enoc. "There is so much for anyone who lives in America to be happy for. Why do they need chiva? I don't understand. But I don't care. They're building my family a house. So I say thank you."
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