A man arrested for heroin distribution in New Mexico

Mexican cartels are flooding the United States with heroin and opiates to keep pace with rising demand. InSight Crime takes a look at the trafficking and distribution of these drugs in New Mexico, one of the epicenters of heroin addiction.

Seated at an upscale coffee shop in Albuquerque, sporting a baseball cap and a sweatsuit, Demian Rubalcaba recounted how his old dealers used to deliver doses of heroin.

"They always had [the heroin] in these little colored balloons," he told InSight Crime. "They would get a grocery bag, cut a circle out of it, wrap the heroin in there, tie it up, put foil around it and put it in a balloon. They drive around all day with [the balloon] in their mouth. And that way if they get pulled over, they swallow it."

Rubalcaba, who is now a licensed social worker and has not used heroin for nine years, took a swig of coffee from his travel mug. The dealers who used to sell him heroin would take other precautionary methods to avoid getting caught, like changing their meet-up spots frequently, or driving deep into residential neighborhoods, he recalled. Rubalcaba said the transactions were always quick: he would jump into the dealer's car, the dealer would pull the balloon out of his mouth and wipe it off, and then Rubalcaba would be on his way.

Rubalcaba's story is far from unique. In New Mexico, heroin is both a historic problem -- dating back to the aftermath of the Vietnam War -- and one that has seen a recent revival as prescription drug users switch to a cheaper high. New Mexico has long had among the highest per capita drug overdose death rates in the country, a problem driven mainly by heroin and prescription opiate abuse.

However, New Mexico isn't the only state in the grips of a heroin epidemic. Across the United States, from New York City to Baltimore to Kentucky, heroin is quietly seeping into homes and schools. The number of heroin users nationwide almost doubled between 2007 and 2013 to an estimated 681,000, precipitating what Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield called a "nationwide heroin crisis". Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that heroin overdose death rates in 28 US states increased more than twofold between 2008 and 2012, accounting for almost 19 percent of drug-related overdose deaths nationwide in 2013, the latest year for which these numbers are available.

New Mexico's heroin problem is particularly acute thanks, in part, to its location. The state is quartered by two major highways -- one of which runs north from the Mexican border, the other stretching from California to North Carolina -- that intersect in Albuquerque. This has turned New Mexico's largest city into a strategic heroin transshipment point. "It's kind of like the heroin expressway," said Jennifer Weiss-Burke, the president and founder of Healing Addiction in Our Community, an NGO dedicated to raising awareness about heroin use.

This is made clear when examining the location of heroin seizures reported to the New Mexico High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) Investigative Support Center in 2014. The greatest number of seizures -- 86 -- took place in the southwest section of the state, while the largest quantity of heroin was seized around Albuquerque (see map).

Sean Waite, the DEA Assistant Special Agent in charge of the Albuquerque District Office, told InSight Crime that his office has seen heroin pass through en route to Oklahoma and Kansas City, and recently nabbed someone transporting the drug to Baltimore. An August 2014 DEA sting operation in New York saw the seizure of $750,000 worth of heroin authorities believe entered the US through New Mexico.

The Family Business

Waite told InSight Crime that heroin trafficking in New Mexico is typically run by small Mexican groups bound by family ties or from the same community. "It tends to be brothers and cousins and people from the same geographical area or the same small town," he said.

Waite added that no one criminal group controls the chain from production to distribution. Instead, these smaller groups tend to pay "taxes" to larger criminal organizations for the right to pass through their territory as heroin is smuggled through Mexico and across the border.

According to Waite, the drugs are typically transported into the United States and through New Mexico in small quantities on the Amtrak train, in buses, or in cars. Heroin is also moved into New Mexico on foot. US officials told The Washington Post in January that traffickers are increasingly employing pedestrians to bring heroin across the border in their body cavities or hidden under their clothes. In addition, the US Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center reported in 2011 that heroin traffickers have also been known to recruit Mexican students -- who cross the border into New Mexico daily, in order to attend school -- as smugglers.  

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US-Mexico Border

Unlike cocaine and marijuana, a small quantity of heroin goes a long way, making even minor shipments highly lucrative. Many habitual heroin users don't inject or smoke more than a gram a day, according to Waite. "You could easily support habits for a thousand people per day with one kilo," Waite said. Rubalcaba remembers smoking about a gram or a gram and a half a day at the height of his addiction, but said that "once you get in pretty deep" a gram a day is about average.

Operation Balloon Fiesta

Waite described the distribution system for heroin in Albuquerque as "the equivalent of pizza delivery." A typical trafficking ring has a dispatcher who takes calls from customers and five or six drivers with "a solid customer base," he said. Each driver might have 10 to 15 loyal customers to whom they deliver heroin on a regular basis. That means a typical distribution network could have as many as 90 regular customers, and with heroin selling at $50 a gram on average, this could bring in as much as $4,500 a day. According to one 2012 estimate, around $300,000 worth of heroin is sold in Albuquerque on a daily basis.

Like the individuals transporting heroin across the border, those distributing it within the city of Albuquerque tend to be undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Waite said. Another DEA agent interviewed by USA Today in 2014 said heroin trafficking networks in Albuquerque frequently recruit drivers from Mexico, smuggling them across the border and providing them with a place to stay, a vehicle, and a daily allowance. While the drivers take care of supplying the customers, their bosses collect the profits and wire money to Mexico as often as possible, in order to avoid having to move suspiciously large quantities of cash.

A recent law enforcement operation, code-named "Balloon Fiesta," an allusion to both the colorful balloons used to package heroin and an annual Albuquerque hot air balloon event, provides one illustration of how these networks operate. In total, this 15-month investigation led to seven arrests and the seizure of over 11 kilos of heroin.

According to the indictment and court documents obtained by USA Today, the leader of the heroin trafficking ring, Miguel Bustamante-Conchas, rented a house for heroin distribution and provided his drivers with cars and housing. He also employed someone to supervise the drivers, take complaints from customers and keep track of market prices.

Bustamante-Conchas and three of his seven co-defendants were Mexican nationals, according to a DEA press release. As USA Today reported, two of Bustamante-Conchas' drivers told federal agents they had been recruited to work as heroin distributors four months prior to their arrest.

High-Class Heroin

In New Mexico, heroin has traditionally been associated with poor communities tucked away in the northern reaches of the state. Now, however, heroin use has spread to other sectors of the population, including the wealthy parts of Albuquerque.

Bustamante-Conchas' network, for example, operated in the Northeast Heights, an affluent neighborhood dotted with upscale shopping centers and two-story adobe homes nestled at the base of the Sandia Mountains. According to the DEA, in recent years this area has seen "a growing, widespread heroin abuse problem among teens and young adults."

The demographic shift is fueled in large part by prescription drug abuse. Many heroin users start out on painkillers and then switch over once their prescription or their money runs out. This seems to be especially true for teenagers. Rubalcaba, the former heroin user who is now a social worker, told InSight Crime that around 90 percent of the young heroin users he meets through work started off on pills.  

Restrictions on prescription drugs have sent the street price of prescription opioids -- like OxyContin and Percocet -- soaring to around $80 for one 80-milligram pill. In contrast, three grams of heroin, known as a "tripa" or "three pack" -- which would likely last most users at least two or three days -- goes for $125 in Albuquerque, according to the DEA.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Heroin

"It’s not like heroin is just all of the sudden skyrocketing because people are trying a new drug, it’s the pill addiction," DEA spokesman Rusty Payne told InSight Crime. "At some point you run out of money, pills are hard to get, pills are very expensive. You can get a similar type of high from heroin. And a lot of times when you become a pill addict your body develops a tolerance for opiates. You hit that ceiling, you need something harder, something better." 

Captain Jerome Sanchez, the head of the police Property Crimes Division in New Mexico's capital Santa Fe, also expressed his concern over increased heroin use across the state. "Heroin is not a taboo drug anymore," he told InSight Crime. "I can't stress it enough that we're getting 'normal' looking people through our hallways who are fully addicted to heroin."

A Growing Trend?

New Mexico's heroin problem shows no signs of subsiding. As US demand for Mexican marijuana decreases, Mexican drug farmers are increasingly planting opium poppies in lieu of marijuana. Drug trafficking organizations appear to be focusing on heroin and methamphetamine (see chart), which, unlike cocaine, can be produced in Mexico, and are easier to smuggle than bulk marijuana shipments. 

Seizure data from the Southwest also points to heroin's growing popularity. Marijuana seizures along the US-Mexico border have dropped 37 percent since 2011. Yet during the 2014 fiscal year, US authorities seized nearly three times the amount of heroin confiscated in 2009 at the Southwest border, according to DEA figures.

Nationwide, heroin seizures increased by almost 90 percent between 2009 and 2013 (see top graph). In New Mexico, the number of heroin seizures in 2014 outstripped previous years, although the amount seized has varied from year to year (see bottom graph).

As more heroin moves into the United States from Mexico, the drug will likely become an even cheaper -- and therefore more attractive -- alternative to prescription opiates in New Mexico and across the country.  

"New Mexico is unique in that we've had heroin for a while, but around the country it's really kind of starting with the pills," said Captain Sanchez of the Santa Fe Police Department. "This opiate thing has kind of exploded over the last probably ten years and it's gravitated into normal society." 

DEA spokesman Payne echoed Sanchez's statement. "If you talk to law enforcement across the country they’re dealing with heroin in the heartlands, they’re dealing with it in the suburbs, they’re dealing with it pretty much everywhere," he said. "There’s really not a demographic or geographic place that doesn’t feel the heroin scourge right now."