Sam Quiñones’ recent book blends separate but overlapping stories of business triumph: pharmaceutical giants’ US promotion of powerful narcotics like OxyContin as the painkiller of choice in the 1990s, and the exploitation of that medical revolution by a small, mostly anonymous heroin trafficking organization from a backwater of Mexico’s criminal landscape.
The best of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” is its indelible and highly-detailed portrayal of how this unique Mexican organization took over municipal heroin markets across the United States. Exploiting the new legions of opioid addicts stemming from doctors’ more aggressive approach to treating pain, during the 1990s and 2000s the so-called Xalisco Boys came to run the heroin trade in cities ranging from Charlotte and Myrtle Beach on the East Coast to Portland and Boise in the west.
Even Honolulu came under the sway of this mostly unheard-of gang.
While there have been other books on the opioid craze, Dreamland becomes a genuinely singular work in its detailed description of the Xalisco Boys. As described by Quiñones, the organization had two major distinguishing characteristics: First, they controlled every element of their supply chain, from the cultivation and processing of poppy into black tar heroin in the small town of Xalisco, Nayarit, to the heroin’s retail sale in the US, to the repatriation of profits using female couriers making twice-monthly trips home.
This meant that their entire organization could run using only members of a handful of extended families from Xalisco, making it far less vulnerable to adversaries.
Second, their organization operated unlike any large criminal organization in Mexico: conflict-averse, low-profile, horizontally-structured, and faithful to the precepts of modern marketing.
Wherever they set down roots in the US, Xalisco cells quickly earned a reputation among addicts for extremely high-quality heroin and for a customer-friendly approach. Users could call the Xalisco Boys any hour of the day, and dealers would deliver, rather than requiring customers to trek to dangerous open-air markets in violent parts of town.
The drivers, who were paid a weekly salary rather than a cut of profits, never used their product, and were renowned for their politeness and professionalism. Virtually always scions of poor agricultural families looking to make a quick bundle in the US, they carried small amounts of heroin in balloons in their mouths, which they could swallow if pulled over or spit right into buyers’ eager hands.
Drivers were encouraged to offer deals in order to secure customer loyalty, meaning that they were often in a race to provide the purest heroin at the lowest price. This, in turn, led to increased overdoses.
The Xalisco Boys used unusual methods to find new markets. Once established in Phoenix, for example, Quiñones speculates that they used the destinations of direct flights out of Phoenix on US Airways as a guide for their expansion. One leading member of the Xalisco Boys specifically targeted areas blighted by OxyContin, knowing he had a captive market of opioid dependency, and that the medical industry could compete with him neither on price nor convenience.
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The Xalisco Boys asked friendly junkies to introduce them to new clients in different markets, rewarding them with free drugs. They steadfastly avoided regions with established heroin empires, such as Chicago, Northern California, and New York.
One key element of these cells was that they were a loose conglomeration rather than a tight hierarchy. Quiñones describes this as the “internet of dope” rather than the General Motors. He quotes one former cell member:
“Nayarit doesn’t have a cartel. It’s people acting as individuals who are doing it on their own: micro-entrepreneurs. They’re always looking for where there’s more money, places where there’s no competition. There are thousands of small networks. Anyone can be boss of a network.”
This made them largely impervious to law enforcement. Just as it wasn’t a cartel, the Xalisco Boys did not have — in essence, could not have — a single kingpin at the top of the pyramid. Likewise, though different cells used the same wholesalers, taking down one cell never led to this federation’s demise. Indeed, two major federal operations that resulted in several hundred arrests, 2006’s Operation Black Gold Rush and 2000’s Operation Tar Pit, come across as barely a hiccup. A steady stream of eager and impoverished would-be farm boys from Xalisco were ready to step in for their incarcerated brothers, cousins, and uncles.
Thanks to this flexibility, the Xalisco Boys continue to operate in different American markets to this day.
For the most part, the Xalisco Boys’ insular structure and risk-averse model also allowed them to avoid the violence that has plagued trafficking organizations. There is a strong taboo against bloodshed within the group; drivers virtually never carry guns and defeat rivals with better products and services rather than intimidation.
There was a temporary uptick in violence within Xalisco beginning in 2010, as, in Quiñones’ telling, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas fought for control over the region, but ultimately the conflict settled with the locals paying the Zetas for protection. This is all pretty revolutionary to anyone whose chief conceptualization of Mexican traffickers is as hyper-violent, anti-social aggressors.
A couple of Quiñones’ more sweeping conclusions probably warrant a touch of skepticism and a bit more investigation. He writes fleetingly of a leading member of the group, Alberto Sánchez Covarrubias, who operates at home in Xalisco and has avoided detection by law enforcement, but Quiñones does not explore his role in any depth.
Similarly, it seems likely that the organization’s relationship with the larger criminal groups has been a bit more complicated than them simply having no interaction prior to 2010. One could speculate that the uptick in violence around that time — in 2010 and 2011 the respective murder rate was 126 and 94 per 100,000 residents — was a product of the 2010 death of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin and regional hegemon Ignacio Coronel. This would suggest a more longstanding association with the powers at the top of the Mexican drug trade.
These might be good topics for a follow-up article, but neither undercuts the thesis of the book. The thrust of Quiñones’ research into the Xalisco Boys — that this is truly a different sort of gang — remains unassailable.
Quiñones’ portrait of the Xalisco Boys leaves the reader pondering whether governments should and could seek to incentivize these sorts of professionalized, corporate trafficking operations.
These are questions without an easy answer. In their more submissive attitude toward rivals and state actors, in their disinterest in crimes like kidnapping and extortion, and in their rejection of violence, the Xalisco Boys are clearly preferable to Mexico’s most threatening groups. It is as easy to be seduced by the idea of a nicer drug-trafficking gang as it is to be impressed by the business prowess of a handful of humble farmers who took over a substantial portion of the American underworld.
But the Xalisco Boys’ courteous approach masked an amazing capacity for cruelty and exploitation. One of the reasons they were so friendly with clients was to maintain them as heroin addicts. Multiple sources told Quiñones that, after being released from prison or making clear their intention to go clean, their dealers would give them free heroin. This would ensure they remained, to borrow Quiñones evocative and oft-used phrase, “slaves to the morphine molecule.”
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The Xalisco Boys’ professionalism was just lubrication for a more profitable operation, which was built on a foundation of suffering. It’s not for nothing that Quiñones has a chapter comparing them to tobacco executives.
While their victims don’t die mutilated, the Xalisco Boys’ efficiency helped advance an epidemic of addiction that has killed tens of thousands of US citizens in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin overdoses killed more than 11,000 people in the US in 2014, which represents a three-fold increase since 2010 and the culmination of a 15-year rise. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports there are 435,000 regular heroin users in the United States.
While apportioning blame among different organizations is essentially impossible, collectively this represents a catastrophic human toll, all the more so considering that heroin abuse had all but disappeared in the 1990s. The Xalisco Boys, exploiting new attitudes wrought by the false promise of a pharmaceutical revolution, are a big part of the reason why. Whether or not they herald a better way of dealing drugs, the impact of their innovations continues to reverberate today.