Planting Portsmouth, Ohio

Portsmouth, a small town I wrote about in Dreamland, has been slowly rebounding from years of economic decline and drug addiction.

That’s a remarkable thing. For it was Portsmouth – on the Ohio River — that led the way into our national opiate-addiction epidemic. The town was where the Pill Mill – sleazy pain clinics prescribing massive amounts of pills to almost anyone for cash – was born.

With the town blasted by this huge supply, and the sense of community shredded by job loss and more, widespread pain-pill addiction was a fact of life in Portsmouth by the end of the 1990s.

But a lot has happened since then. The town, each time I return, seems slightly more energetic, more invigorated, more about positivity and less about dope’s inertia and fatalism. A recovery culture has taken hold there that’s exciting to watch.

Not that all the problems are behind Portsmouth, Ohio. But there’s another story now competing with the “let’s get high” culture that gripped the town for so long. I wrote about the beginnings of this at the end of my book – the small clues of rebirth: new gyms, a coffee shop, lofts, refurbished buildings and more.

Along that line, the folks of Portsmouth – 500+ volunteers – get together this Saturday to wash, repaint, redo their downtown in something they’re calling Plant Portsmouth.

They’ll be painting light poles, scraping and painting all the curbs, replacing 120 streetlights, and more. “None of this has been done in 20 years,” said Jeremy Burnside, an attorney in town who got the idea started.

They’ll also be planting plants as a way of signaling the town’s rebirth.

Burnside’s hoping to set a Guinness World Record for the most people planting plants simultaneously.

(Folks — please send me photos from the day and I’ll post them here and on social media. #plantportsmouth)

Organizers have raised $75,000 from local businesses to pay for supplies. That itself is a sign of how locally owned businesses are now growing in Portsmouth. None of that money came from the chain stores and corporate fast-food restaurants that have dominated the town’s economy since things began to go bad in the early 1980s and the shops on its main street closed. (Btw, I bought a couple t-shirts, inspired by Dreamland and the community pool that was the source of my book’s title, from a company called 3rdand Court that began in downtown Portsmouth. Check them out.)

The antidote to opiates is not naloxone. It is community. I say this often in my speeches when I’m traveling around the country. We Americans have isolated and fragmented ourselves in a million ways – this in poor areas and in wealthy areas.  That left us vulnerable; it left us dangerously separate and disconnected from each other – strange to say in this time of technological hyper-connectivity.

The final expression of all that is our national epidemic of addiction to opiates – the most isolating class of drugs we know.

Rebuilding community (in a million different ways) is crucial to fighting it, I believe.

I’m glad to see Portsmouth leading the way on that, too.

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Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

Librarians and the Opiate Addiction Epidemic

Our national opiate-addiction epidemic is different from other American drug scourges for many reasons.

It’s the deadliest and the most widespread. It didn’t begin with drug mafias, but through the promotion of narcotic painkillers by pharmaceutical companies to doctors, who were pressured by we Americans, demanding an easy solution
to our pain.

But the epidemic is also remarkable for whom it has forced to its frontlines.

Librarians make up one such group.

I’m in Ohio this week, speaking at four regional conferences of librarians around the state. Today was Gallipolis — pop. 3500, in rural Gallia County, along the quiet, majestic Ohio River.

I stayed after my talk to listen to a panel made up of a university librarian, an elementary school librarian, and a public librarian talking about their experiences with this epidemic.

We heard about needles in the bushes, about how a child who lives in a drug house smells, about calling 911 because a customer had overdosed in a bathroom, about the look of some people who come into the library high. The epidemic has made danger zones of innocuous public places.

One school librarian, I was told, suspects two girls at her school are being abused. They come to school smelling badly. She takes their clothes home and washes them.

I was also struck by the stories many in the audience (80 people or so) had to tell about addiction in their families.  Several librarians were raising their addicted relatives’ children.

Librarians are also perfectly poised, though, to be great catalysts for change – community organizers in the fight against this plague. That’s what I believe. They have the spaces, the local trust and credibility, and often small towns need folks like librarians to bring them together — and this is happening.

As I said to the group I spoke to, who better than purveyors of the book to be the leaders in this fight.

Plus, librarians are looking for new roles to play – rebranding libraries as community centers, places where people can come together. This catastrophe is offering libraries and librarians that moment to reinvent themselves towns and counties.

In the afternoon, I drove through the pristine southern Ohio farmland – white houses, white churches, silver siloes, blue sky, and acres of green corn.

I stopped at the Dairy Queen in Washington Court House, another small town with a bunch of opiate addiction problems.

Tomorrow Dayton – then Findlay and, finally, Twinsburg.

Next week I speak in Weber County, Utah, and after that Brunswick County, North Carolina.

All frontlines in America’s epidemic of opiate addiction.

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Filed under Dreamland, The Heroin Heartland

Purdue in Tennessee II: High-Volume Prescribers

From 2006 to 2015, Dr. Michael Rhodes was one of the top prescribers of OxyContin in the state of Tennessee.

His practice had many of the signs of what had come to be called a “pill mill.” Lines of people outside. A knife fight in front of his office. Investigators found he often prescribed without proper physical examinations or knowing the medical histories of his patients. Over those years, Rhodes, of Springfield TN, prescribed 319,000 OxyContin tablets. In May, 2013 had his license placed on restrictive probation by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners.

Still, representatives from drug-maker Purdue Pharma continued to call on him urging him to prescribe more OxyContin, their signature drug, according to a lawsuit filed by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

“In spite of this disciplinary action by the board (of medical examiners) and direct knowledge of his patient’s death from OxyContin, Purdue continued to call on Dr. Rhodes,” the Tennessee complaint states. They continued to “pressure Dr. Rhodes to prescribe more and more opioids, even when he expressed concerns regarding his own ability to competently do so.”

According to the lawsuit, Purdue reps called on Dr. Rhodes 126 times, include 31 times after his license was restricted.

They did so during the years after the company signed an agreement in 2007 with the federal government to be vigilant for abuse and diversion of the pills and look out for doctors prescribing in unscrupulous ways.

That lawsuit, filed in May and unsealed by a state court judge a week ago, alleges the company was largely to blame for the opiate epidemic in Tennessee by creating a public nuisance due to its marketing techniques. (See previous related blogpost.)

Part of the Tennessee complaint against Purdue catalogues alleged attempts by the company to get high-prescribing doctors and nurses to prescribe even more of their product, despite signs that those medical professionals were behaving in unethical ways and that their prescribing habits were out of control. Cultivating high-volume prescribers, the complaint alleges, was seen as crucial to the company’s business. The complaint alleges the company called on several such nurse practitioners, three now-shuttered pain clinics, and 13 doctors, who’ve retired or had their licenses revoked or placed on probation.

Among them was Dr. James Pogue, of Brentwood, TN, who prescribed 562,000 OxyContin 80mg pills between 2006 and 2013, making him one of the largest prescribers in Tennessee even three years after he stopped practicing medicine. He generated $655,000 in revenue for the company during one six-month period in 2009, according to the complaint.

Company sales reps called on him 53 times between 2005 and 2012, “more than half of those occasion coming after his license was reprimanded in 2009.”

The Breakthrough Pain Therapy Center, in Maryville TN, was known to have none of the typical diagnostic tools associated with pain clinics: examination tables, gloves, urine screens “or providers who performed independent pain diagnoses.” It also included “scant” office records and pre-written prescriptions often dispensed “without a physician present.”

While placing some staff on no-call lists, the complaint claims Purdue continued to call on other staff members at Breakthrough Pain Therapy, whose owners were federally indicted in December 2010. This included Buffy Kirkland, a nurse practitioner who worked there for several years. Between 1998 and 2017 as a nurse practioner in Tennessee, she prescribed 68,000 OxyContin tablets, of which two-thirds were of 40mg or stronger, according to the complaint.

The Tennessee complaint is one of numerous lawsuits filed in the last year or so against Purdue and several other drug companies that make opioid painkillers. The plaintiffs include Native-American tribes, small towns like Everett, WA and large cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. Most state attorneys general have filed lawsuits, as have at least 300 counties in a suit that alleges a “public nuisance” by these companies. That suit is consolidated in a federal court in Cleveland.

When I was writing Dreamland in 2013-14, I remember only three such lawsuits against makers of opioid painkillers. This was a time when the issue was largely hidden, those affected largely silent. Families were ashamed and wanted to obscure the truth of the addiction and manner of death of their loved ones. Thus the media paid scant attention and elected officials, outside those in a few states, paid less.

But the awareness has expanded in the last three years. One result is that many more lawyers across the country have turned to examining legal theories that might prosper in court.

Public agencies have been hammered by the cost of the epidemic. Indeed the epidemic’s costs have largely been borne by the public — by coroners and public health offices, police and sheriffs departments, jails, county hospitals, foster children agencies and more. Meanwhile profits have largely accrued to the private sector, mostly to pharmaceutical companies.

Thus, today, most state and county officials have to be seen by their constituencies as doing something dramatic about this epidemic, and a lawsuit has become an option to recoup some of those costs. None of the new lawsuits has yet gone to court.

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Filed under Dreamland, The Heroin Heartland

Purdue Pharma in Tennessee: Always Be Closing

“Always Be Closing” is the motto that salesmen live by in the movie/play Glengarry Glen Ross.

If you haven’t seen the movie, do so. It’s great: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alex Baldwin, Kevin Spacey. It’s about an office of desperate sales guys hawking shady real estate investments. ABC — “Always Be Closing” — is the way each is supposed to approach every sales call.

It’s also a motto that showed up in Purdue Pharma sales notes and notebooks in Tennessee, according to a lawsuit against the company.

The suit was filed in May by the office of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. It alleges a lot of things, but in general that Purdue used deceptive marketing practices to push its signature drug, OxyContin. This took place, the suit alleges, between 2009 and 2012, well after the company and three of its executives pleaded guilty (in 2007) to a federal misdemeanor of false branding and paid a $634 million fine, while also committing to a series of measures to ensure they were not marketing to doctors who were prescribing unscrupulously.

The company moved to seal the lawsuit, but a judge in Knoxville recently decided against that idea, allowing the office to send me, and others, a copy.

In general terms, what I find interesting the lawsuit is how it displays the changes in pharmaceutical sales in this country, much of that coming during the life of OxyContin, though not due to it.

Up to the mid-1990s, drug salesmen in the United States were usually older men, often with backgrounds in pharmacy or medicine. They were often from the communities they sold to, knew the doctors they sold to, and became credible sources of information for those same doctors as medicine began to change rapidly.

Then the industry went another route. Those older folks were shown the door. In what can be called a sales force arms race,  drug companies hired more and more reps. These reps were usually much younger, very good looking. They didn’t know much about they were selling but they have backgrounds in sales. They inundated doctors with visits and giveaways, of pens, calendars, lunch, sometimes trips for continuing medical education seminars. The companies were aware that by massaging a doctor’s staff, the doctor would soon be an easier mark.

Many companies did this. The numbers of sales rep rose through the 1990s from 35,000 nationwide to over 100,000 by the end of the decade. But other companies were selling blockbuster drugs to deal with cholesterol, hypertension and others. Purdue was among the few that used these techniques, and this enhanced salesforce (numbering eventually 1,000), to sell a narcotic painkiller.

“Always Be Closing” was, apparently, part of that push at Purdue. So, allegedly, was mention of the movie. All of this coming after the 2007 criminal lawsuit.

In Tennessee, (pop. 6.6 million people), the company made 300,000 sales calls to health care providers in the 2007-17 decade, during which time doctors prescribed more than 104,000,000 OxyContin tablets; more than half of those tablets were at the strongest doses the company made: 40mg and above.

Those of you who’ve read my book Dreamland know that, to me, supply is the crucial factor in this, and really in any drug scourge. What the lawsuit describes is a company hard at work at creating a vast new supply of opioids.

Company instructional materials pushed sales folks to “expand the physician’s definition of the appropriate patient” to which opioids might be prescribed; to “never give someone more info than they need to act”; and to develop a “specific plan for systematically moving physicians to move to the next level of prescribing.”

“We sell hope in a bottle,” said one guide for incoming salespeople, who were also instructed to encourage doctors to increase patients’ daily doses.

The lawsuit goes on to claim that Purdue sales reps in Tennessee were urged to make frequent sales calls, as evidence showed that that increased the number of prescriptions. According to the lawsuit, the company urged its salespeople to “focus on doctors who had more patients, less likely to have pain management expertise, and have less time to appropriately monitor patients on opioids.”

During these years, Purdue sales reps, according to the lawsuit, focused their efforts on primary care doctors, nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, whom the company “knew or should have known … had limited resources or time to scrutinize the company’s claims.” Together, people in those three profession prescribed 65 percent of all OxyContin tablets in Tennessee during these years. By 2015, Tennessee had the third highest prescription rate of opioids in the country.

A major part of the lawsuit goes on to discuss specific examples of Tennessee doctors who were leading the state in opioid prescribing, often with signs that their practice was out of control or they were incompetent or unscrupulous, yet who were nonetheless aggressively marketed to by Purdue salespeople.

More on that tomorrow.

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Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

The Orchestra of Baja California & Celso Piña

One of the fascinating things about Tijuana is its way of absorbing almost anything and anyone from anywhere.

It has a long history of doing so, most recently with several thousand Haitians immigrants, who’ve crossed nine borders, coming up from Brazil, to arrive looking for U.S. asylum, which they did not get and so they stayed in Tijuana and have been melting into the city.

I’ve written a lot about the new Tijuana that has emerged in the last 10-15 years, focusing for a while on opera, which I wrote about in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration.

More recently, I’ve written about the city’s gradual turn away from making money from migration and vice tourism and toward a higher level of entrepreneurial effort to cater to the local consumer market.

As part of all of the above, the Orchestra of Baja California — which itself has its roots in a Russian orchestra that was imported to the city in 1992 with help from Eduardo Garcia Barrios, the group’s conductor for many years — this week put out an album backing accordionist Celso Piña.

Piña, born in Mexico, has made a career of playing Mexican norteño and tropical cumbias from Colombia.

The orchestra, now under the direction of Armando Pesquiera, held three concerts with Piña. Give a listen …

 

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Filed under Border, Culture, Mexico

An Outline In Storytelling

I’ve always wondered how novelists come up their books. Do they just start writing with a hunch and let the inspiration flow, taking them where it will? That seemed unlikely, given what I know about writing as a daily job, with inspiration playing only a minor role. (Or better put, inspiration flowing from consistent daily toil.)

Or, I wondered, do they spend days ahead of time blocking out their stories scene by scene? (Which is how my mind works.)

Each writer is different. Each follows a different path.

But I was cheered to see this outline that Joseph Heller came up with (presented in OpenCulture.com, a wonderful website, which I support financially).

It’s a chronology of events he describes in Catch-22 and it helped him keep track of the story he intended to tell in wildly non-chronological order.

(Full disclosure: I started to read the novel years ago and couldn’t finish it.)

I tried something like this with Dreamland – putting pieces of paper up on a mirror in my garage office, each representing a different chapter, which readers of the book will know are mostly 2-6 pages in length.

At one point my wife walked into the garage, saw this blizzard of paper taped to the mirror, and left thinking I’d lost my mind. But the papers helped visualize where the book was going and track the different storylines I was telling. It helped also when it came time to rearrange the order some of the chapters came in. I’d just untape a chapter and move it somewhere else on the mirror. At one point I had six rows, each with 5-7 chapters per row.

Apparently other writers find this visualizing necessary first before telling a story.

“Every great novel—or at least every finished novel—needs a plan.”

I think it’s true in nonfiction as well.

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Filed under Books, Writing

the Original SoCal Mexican Mafia Godfather Dies

Los Angeles never had a mafia in the way that many East Coast cities did.

Regional organized crime never really took root out here. So we never had the mafia dons, running the large crime syndicates that made the headlines in, say, Cleveland or New York.

About as close as we came was Peter “Sana” Ojeda.

Ojeda, the oldest active member of the Mexican Mafia, died June 7, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons website, which lists him as 76 years old.

Sources tell me he apparently suffered a heart attack during an operation in a federal prison medical facility. YouTube memorials are already up.

To understand Ojeda’s importance, it’s important also to understand that the Mexican Mafia is neither Mexican nor was it, for many years, a mafia, strictly speaking. It is a prison gang, controlling Latino gang members in the state prison system. It took its name as a way of inspiring fear in others. Ojeda was part of that formation early on, as well as the spread of the Mafia’s influence across the state prison system.

The Mexican Mafia had no connection (until recent years) to the underworld in Mexico. Its members were, to begin with and for many years, like Ojeda’s, Mexican-American, who spoke only halting Spanish, if any at all, and whose families had been in the United States for generations.

For many years, in fact, the Mexican Mafia only ran prison yards and its influence was barely felt outside those walls.

But in the early 1990s, all that changed. The man who ushered in that change was Peter “Sana” Ojeda, a long-time member of the Mexican Mafia who had grown up in Orange County.

Ojeda, who was then on the streets, organized a meeting of O.C. street gangs at El Salvador Park in Santa Ana, filmed by law enforcement, during which he stood on bleachers dressed in a black-and-white long-sleeve shirt and told them all to stop with the gang killings and the drive-by shootings. He urged them to tax drug dealers in their neighborhoods as a way of funding neighborhood defense.

This stunned many in the Mexican Mafia, and they began to follow his lead, often using emissaries to organize meetings from San Bernardino and Pomona out to Elysian Park in Los Angeles, where one of the biggest meetings was held.

The Peace Treaty, as all this came to be known, sounded great. Gang leaders doing what law enforcement could not. But it evolved into something sinister and lasting: A system whereby gang members would indeed tax drug dealers in their area and funnel the proceeds to Mafia members, many of whom were in prison for life.

This taxation system far outlasted the Peace Treaty and is still in place today across Southern California, described in dozens of federal RICO indictments and in interviews I’ve done with dozens of gang members.

It amounts to the only regional organized crime syndicate that Southern California has ever known.

Taxation transformed Latino street gangs from scruffy neighborhood territorial entities into money-making ventures, though these were often fairly rag-tag. It gave career criminals, doing life terms in prison, access to a labor force — youths on the street who would do their bidding and admired them the way little leaguers look up to major league ball players. The Big Homies, as they were known on the street, could change life in a barrio with only a few words smuggled from prison in microprint on small pieces of paper.

It’s worth noting that their organizations on the streets, too, were often inept, bumbling, hampered by limited communications, by greed, envy, betrayal, rumor and gossip and drug use, as well as the constant return to prison of anointed emissaries of incarcerated Mafia members. One trial I sat in on involved a mafia member trying to organize three gang members to kill a rival, a man who rarely drove but was often walking in his Pomona neighborhood. Dozens and dozens of cellphone calls on how to do this and it still didn’t happen.

But Mafia taxation changed a lot about Southern California street life.

For a decade, Latino street gangs became the leading race-hate criminals in Southern California, a culture that grew from orders by many members of the Mexican Mafia that gangs should now rid their areas of black street gang/drug sales competition. As they were interpreted on the street, far from direct Mafia control, those orders often became directed at any black person, and thus in some neighborhoods campaigns were waged to get all black families to leave, which included murder, firebombings, assaults, racist graffiti and more.

Taxation made Mexican Mafia members equal in many communities to the town mayor or city council, at least with when it came to their ability to affect life in those areas. Now with the obedience of thousands of gang members on the street, many of whom were too young to have ever laid eyes on the incarcerated men they were obeying, Mafia members could, and did, ignite crime waves from maximum-security cells merely through letters smuggled from prison or via liaisons who transmitted their orders to the street. They drained city budgets, mangled lives, and forced young gang members to commit crimes that landed them in prison for life. I’ve interviewed several young men in such situations.

Ojeda was a contemporary of the pioneers of the Mexican Mafia (he’s far lower left in this photo). Among them was Joe Morgan (standing above him in the photo), whose story is also fascinating. Morgan was a Serbian-American who grew up in Boyle Heights/East LA and became culturally Mexican-American, and helped found the Mexican Mafia. Morgan died many years ago.

Ojeda was the last surviving member of that generation of the Mexican Mafia, made a member in 1972 in Tehachapi. Here’s a photo of him from those years (top right).

Throughout his life, but especially following the Salvador Park meeting, he would remain a household name in the Southern California Latino street-gang world. Meanwhile, he was in and out of prison.

In 2016, he was convicted a final time of conspiracy, largely on the basis of testimony from a former protégé, and sent to prison for 15 years, which most people figured was a life sentence.

But his control over Santa Ana and much of Orange County Latino street gang life seemed to me mostly unquestioned. So, too, his reputation as the Godfather of Orange County.

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Filed under California, Drugs, Gangs, Los Angeles, Prison

Dirty Thirds: Cops, the Mexican Mafia & LA’s disappearing gangs

Los Angeles has seen gang violence plummet in the last decade.

Some of the reasons why were on display in two federal criminal conspiracy cases announced this afternoon at a press conference at the L.A. office of the U.S. Attorney.

The cases involved the Mexican Mafia prison gang controlling drug taxation and trafficking in two places: The LA County Jail, largest jail in America, and in the city of Pomona.

The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang that runs the Latino gang members in the state’s prison system. About 25 years ago, it extended that power to the streets, ordering those gang members to tax neighborhood drug dealers and funnel the proceeds to MM members. Drug taxation thrives and amounts to the first regional organized crime system in the history of Southern California.

One case involved a Mafia member who controlled drug trafficking in the entire jail, according to the indictment: Jose Landa-Rodriguez, who grew up in East LA,  a member of the South Los gang. He’s apparently been in county jail for many years, during the reign of the now deceased Lalo Martinez, a controversial MM member. Through those years, and after Martinez died, Landa-Rodriguez allegedly grew to control the drugs entering and for sale across the jail system.

Inmates not with the Mexican Mafia had to get his permission to sell. Only way to do that was by funneling a third of their product to the gang — hence the name of the case, Operation Dirty Thirds — then waiting while Mexican Mafia associates sold the stuff. That’s one way of controlling your competition. Violators were often beaten. That’s another.

They were helped, prosecutors allege, by Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, a local attorney whom investigators say helped facilitate the trade, passed notes back and forth between Mexican Mafia associates, and that kind of thing. They were also helped by a slew of go-betweens who would get arrested with drugs in their bodies.

The other indictment involved a Mexican Mafia member named Mike Lerma, who has controlled Pomona for many years from his cell in solitary confinement at Pelican BayState Prison maximum lockdown. Crews of members from 12thStreet, Cherryville and Pomona Sur street gangs were working together under Lerma’s command, the indictment alleges. The indictment alleges Lerma’s crews did kidnappings, robberies, identity theft. These are Pomona gangs that have harbored animosity against each other for years, but have repressed the urge to go after one another due to orders from Lerma, according to officers I spoke with.

(Btw, I briefly met Mike Lerma one time, in his cell in Pelican Bay State Prison. We were separated by Plexiglass and he was cooking a cup of cocoa on his hotplate in his pale-yellow concrete cell where he spent 23 hours of every day. He was small, a wan and bent fellow, wearied by years on solitary confinement. From behind the glass, he waved, said how you doing? I said fine.)

The mafia’s system has forced gangs to abandon what made them local neighborhood scourges because it leads to unwanted police attention.

“Years ago, they were about turf,” said one. “Now they’re about protecting their business.”

For decades, they waged wars over turf. They defended street corners, parks, markets, apartment buildings like they actually belonged to them.  They were very much street gangs, and their activity — graffiti, shootings, car jackings, simple hanging out through which they did their recruiting — blighted working-class neighborhoods across Southern California.

These days, though, they are absent. They have retreated into the shadows. Doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. Just that they’ve disappeared from the streets, no longer are out in public, damaging neighborhoods that can least afford it, spraying up mom-and-pop markets. Homicides are way down because gangs don’t have easy rival targets to shoot at. That’s one reason anyway. In Pomona, the once-notorious Sharkey Park – from which Pomona 12thStreet earned its name the Sharks (members often had shark tattoos) — hasn’t had a shooting in who knows how many years. Some Pomona cops at the press conference couldn’t remember the last one. As if to exorcise the past, the park has been renamed Tony Cerda Park, in honor of a Native-American activist and tribal leader; pow-wows are held at the park.

Gangs are just not evidence in Southern California. It’s a remarkable, profound change in culture and crime, and one that benefits cities, neighborhoods, and working-class residents most of all. Parks are once again places for kids to play. This is part due to dictates in the underworld, from organizations like the Mexican Mafia, who want their business protected.

But it’s also due to an unprecedented amount of collaboration among law enforcement. In the 1980s and 1990s, this didn’t exist. Agencies fought each other for credit, turf, budget, as the gangs grew fierce and brazen. But the last decade or more has seen a remarkable change and that too you could see at the press conference.

At the press conference, cops of all stripes assembled to thank each other for working together. The feds thanked the locals. The locals thanked each other and the feds.

“I want to give special thanks to our law enforcement partners,” said Pomona Police Chief Mike Olivieri.

(For the record, apart from Pomona PD, that includes the FBI’s San Gabriel Safe Streets Task Force, the LA County Sheriff’s Department, ATF, the DEA, Ontario Police Department, the IRS Criminal Division, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Division.)

“Today’s action is not an isolated event. Southern California law enforcement is united in its fight against violent criminals and street gangs,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, continuing the theme.

I’ve been to a dozen of these gang-conspiracy press conferences and I always like it when they thank each other. Because it wasn’t always that way.

Speaking with a prosecutor outside the press conference, we marveled at the change and wondered how the trauma of the 1980s and 1990s might have been avoided had this kind of collaboration been more common

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Filed under California, Drugs, Gangs, Southern California

Tony Kinman – An American Original

I read on FB that Tony Kinman is very ill.

I don’t know many details. But it’s a sad thing.

(NOTE: I’ve just seen on Chip Kinman’s FB page the news that Tony Kinman died this morning, apparently at his home in the San Diego area. A very sad day.)

Amid a culture where people on either side of politics are pushed to toe some kind of social-media enforced line, where everyone avidly looks to be offended, and where we all seem to be thin skinned, a spirit like Tony Kinman matters.

He began as a bass player from San Diego who, along with his brother Chip, formed one of the great musical duos in alternative rocknroll in this country. They started in punk rock, forming The Dils, which was the best punk band at least on the West Coast. Frenetic, blasting, fast. I coveted the 45 of I Hate the Rich and still have Class War and then Sound of the Rain.

Their voices blended perfectly – Tony with his baritone and a mop of dark hair, Chip, blond, with his high tenor. The punk Everly Brothers.

Beyond that, though, they hadn’t much but their gumption, rocknroll spirit, work ethic, and cheap sneakers, which was enough to keep them going for years.

Tony Kinman never made it big — never a music-industry star. The Kinman boys weren’t noble, starving artists — forget that — but my guess is they just wanted to create something of their own more than they wanted the cash. Each band they formed seemed to directly alienate the fans of the previous band. (Great interview here with Chip Kinman.)

They formed Rank and File, a country band with a punk flavor and moved to Austin. Tony’s baritone was spectacular on Conductor Wore Black and Sundown.

Later, they did electronica – Blackbird – and then moved on to Cowboy Nation, a folk duo playing old cowboy songs on acoustic guitar and bass.

I can’t say I know Tony Kinman. I met him and his brother once in 1980 when I hired them to play a party at Barrington Hall, a co-op at UC Berkeley where I was living and which was known for that kind of party. I drove to San Francisco in a co-op truck and loaded up The Dils and their equipment and then drove them back later that night. All that I have from that night is this photo from my friend Joanne.
But the Kinman boys have been part of the constellation of influences important in my life.

In my hometown of Claremont, California, many guys I grew up with played guitar; so did I, though not well. In high school in the 1970s, to me, rocknroll mattered. By then, though, it had grown bloated, pompous. Bands sang about the tribulations of being famous and over-sexed. Some bands recorded rock operas about elves, gnomes and mountain kings. In order to play any of it, we were told that we needed columns of expensive amps and we had to play a million notes a minute. Shows were in baseball stadiums, not in sweaty dark clubs.

Then punk rock came along and burned away all that crap and rock was again, for a moment, distilled to its urgent essentials. Three chords, two minutes, and you were done. Don’t ask permission to play – just get up there. Record your own 45 and put it out and sell it yourself. Put out your own fanzine. Organize your own shows. Don’t wait for anointing from some record company.

Soon punk rock became a style in which clothing companies charged a lot of money to make you look like you lived in a Skid Row wino hotel.

Really, though, punk rock wasn’t about leather jackets. It was an approach to life. Just do it: that was a real, pure American idea. Then Nike admen bought those words and turned them into a slogan.

Before that, though, that attitude was so healthy for a young American to hear. It was an important way to live and, to me, it grew from punk rock.

I adopted it as, in adulthood, I veered toward journalism and writing. I took jobs where I thought I could do exciting work and not wear a tie. So I covered crack, gangs and crime in Stockton, California. Then wanting to be a foreign correspondent but not wanting to ask permission from some newspaper, I moved to Mexico, where, as things turned out, I became a freelance writer.

I spent 10 years wandering the country alone, finding stories and selling them to media in the states, feeling this was my calling — this was punk rock.

I wrote a lot about immigrants, trudging north, trusting only in their wits, gumption, work ethic and cheap sneakers, and I knew they were punk rock as well. The best idea of America, coming up, raw and ragged, from Mexico.

I was offered jobs at news services and turned them down. It was a lot of money but I’d have to heed the orders of some editor in New York and not follow my own gut and eye, and this seemed a recipe for an unhappy life. I’m no noble, starving artist. Forget that. I just wanted a life of my own design. To do the stories I knew were important.

Along the way, I watched Tony and Chip Kinman, who best embodied what punk rock was to me, as they excavated American music in their own way.

Even when what they created didn’t always hit home the way The Dils or Rank and File did. Black Bird never quite worked for me, but I loved that they did it because it was them not being easily boxed.

Then they put out Cowboy Nation and I played the hell out of that. Streets of Laredo, Shenandoah, and the best song on the album, My Rifle, My Pony and Me. We Do As We Please is a great summation of the American spirit.

I remember I was thrilled when they somehow contacted me to get a copy of my first book.

I’ve noticed that Chip Kinman has continued on with his take on American blues – in a band called Ford Madox Ford, which is raunchy and raw and that’s the way great American music should be.

So I’m hoping the best for Tony Kinman, his brother, his family and his close friends.

The world can still use people who shape lives of their own design – maybe now more than ever.

(Photos: I’ll admit I just took these photos off the internet. If they’re yours, let me know and I’ll take them down.)

 

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Librarians and the Beauty of Surprise

On National Read Across America Day, I’d like to give thanks for local public librarians.

I find one of the great things to do is walk into a library and see what they’ve displayed as book suggestions. Mostly, what I love is the surprise. These books are almost always something interesting, quirky, something you hadn’t thought to read, or even ever heard about.

For writers, I think this is an essential endeavor. Reading widely, I’ve found, is so important. Putting yourself in the way of all kinds of ideas, people, modes of expression.

The library is where I find that. Mickey Spillane novels, nonfiction about municipal governance, biographies of some Japanese artist. I once read part of a book about the history of the word “Okay” because it was on display at my local library and the history of the word hadn’t occurred to me.

I don’t always finish these books – sometimes I take a brief excursion through them, is all.

But is it so worth it to stop in and see what’s on display!

My latest chance I took was on John Banville’s Time Pieces, which is an excellent piece of writing about Dublin, partly about his childhood, and some other stuff. I will finish that.

But I’m grateful that this community asset is available to me. So keep it up librarians, and many thanks for what you do!

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Dudley Althaus and the Mexico City scene

When I moved to Mexico City in 1994, the guy who knew most about the country, had covered it most completely, was Dudley Althaus. He was from Ohio. He moved to Mexico years before for the Houston Chronicle, where he did amazing work. A few years ago, he went on to work for the Wall Street Journal.

Dudley just announced that he’s leaving the Journal and newspaper work. His final story is about a priest who mediates disputes among narco clans, trying to protect communities from their wrath, in the ferocious state of Guerrero.

I arrived in Mexico fresh from a newspaper-reporting job in Seattle that did not fit me. I had gone to Mexico really to study and improve my weak Spanish. Shortly after the assassination of a Mexican presidential candidate, a job opened at an English-language magazine called Mexico Insight that had already purchased a freelance story of mine. I got the job, though it meant a massive cut in pay. I’d always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I figured this was my chance. I was ardently single. So I happily returned to Seattle, sold all my stuff, and moved permanently to Mexico. Within a year, the magazine went under and I became a freelancer, selling stories to papers and magazines in the states.

I was lucky to spend 10 years in Mexico with an ever-morphing corps of U.S. journalists that were of the highest caliber. I was always amazed at the people who were down there, who came and went over that decade: Jose de Cordoba, Alfredo Corchado, David Luhnow, Elizabeth Malkin, Mary Beth Sheridan, James Smith, Joel Millman, Ginger Thompson, Gerry Hadden, Brendan Case, Geoff Mohan, Phil Davis, Julia Preston, Sam Dillon, Steve Fainaru, Mark Stevenson, Tim Padgett, Tim Weiner, Lynne Walker, Susan Ferriss, Ricardo Sandoval, Alan Zarembo, Anita Snow, Hayes Ferguson, Colin McMahon, and the late Phil True and Paul De la Garza – as well as my freelancing homies Leon Lazaroff, Franc Contreras and Keith Dannemiller. (Pardon if I’m missing a few.)

I believe in the creative power of scenes. I first saw it in the punk rock scene that developed in the late 1970s, when I was at UC Berkeley, where I produced punk shows. An effervescent agglomeration of the similarly intentioned. At UCB, I wrote my senior history thesis on the jazz scene that emerged in Harlem in the 1940s, where hundreds of musicians converged to compete, collaborate, improve, and produced an entirely new form of music – with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie leading the way.

Scenes – or communities of like-minded people, trained, nearing the peak of their careers, interested in the same things, highly motivated – are where creation takes place. That’s how it felt to be in Mexico City during the decade I was there. It was a great thing for a young reporter to be a part of. I consider myself lucky that it was at a time in my career when I was ready for it, prepared to benefit from the challenges the country posed.

Dudley was the dean of us all, a friendly face, with a generous attitude and great knowledge of the country. The guy who shaped a community, kept us together, organized Friday nights at the Nuevo Leon cantina in the Colonia Condesa, where you could learn a ton about Mexico. I always tried to keep in mind that whatever story I was working on, Dudley had probably already written it a time or two. He was, you could say, the Dizzy Gillespie of Mexico City.

Given U.S. newspaper budgets, it’s hard to imagine that kind of scene emerging today in any foreign country, though the need for it, if anything, is greater than ever.

I left Mexico in 2004 to work for the L.A. Times in Los Angeles – quit that in 2014, and I’m a freelancer again.

Yet I always consider my decision to take that magazine job, and that 95 percent cut in pay, to be among the best I ever made (thanks Mike Zamba and Lonnie Iliff for offering it to me). For it allowed me to spend the next nine years covering a country in complex transition with some of the best reporters our country produced – and at the top of the list was Dudley Althaus.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller (Dudley Althaus, Houston Chronicle reporter, heading upriver to PEMEX installations on the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo in the Mexican state of Tabasco.)

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The First Haitian Restaurant in Tijuana

The first Haitian restaurant has opened in Tijuana.

It’s at Avenida Negrete near Avenida Juarez, not far from the city’s Revolucion tourist strip.

A couple years ago, Haitians began streaming into Tijuana to ask for asylum in the United States. They were coming all the way from Brazil. Their stories were stunning. They had left Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and migrated to Brazil where there was work building the facilities for the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympic Games two years later.

But even before the Games began, Brazil’s economy was collapsing. Now without work, many of the Haitian migrants – first hundreds, then thousands – embarked on a journey across nine countries, braving nasty cops and bad weather, climbing mountains and fording wild rivers, some drowning or falling to their deaths.

Those who trekked on connected meanwhile via WhatsApp with their families back home. They crossed Central America and into Mexico, then the full length of the country before ending up in Tijuana.

Their arrival was a new thing for the town, which was of course used to migrants coming from the south, just not black migrants who didn’t speak Spanish. (Here’s a report I did for KCRW in 2016, as Haitians were beginning to arrive.)

Many of the Haitians stayed, mired in bureaucratic limbo. Then the U.S. State Department said it would not grant the migrants asylum, but instead deport them home.

So, stranded in Tijuana, they have melted into the city’s economy. Three taxi drivers I met said the Haitians were well known for their work in the construction industry. I saw one guy working in a shop making tortillas.

“These guys work hard,” said one driver. “You see them everywhere, selling candy at the traffic lights.” (Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a great story about this.)

It was a matter of time before the Haitians began forming businesses, importing something from home. At the restaurant, where I had grilled chicken, rice, beans and salad, I spoke with a man named Ramon, who said he was the owner. The place had opened in November, he said. It still had the Tamales sign of the previous occupant. But outside and in, it was all Haitians.

Speaking in a mix of poor French, Spanish and English, I was able to glean that some 2500 Haitians now live in Tijuana. A young guy named Roselin told me he worked making furniture for a shop on Revolucion. This was a trade he either learned or perfected while in Brazil.

The restaurant, which appears not to have a name, also sells cosmetics from Haiti. Light-skinned face cream and Afro Marley Twist hair extensions. You can also call Haiti or Canada from the restaurant. Next door is a barber shop, which now appears to cater entirely to Haitian clientele.

But what else do you need to confront a new world like Tijuana more than the most intimate things from home – food you know, to look good, and to call the family every once in a while?

A few of them have Mexican girlfriends. So I suspect in a few years we’ll be seeing little Haitian-Mexicans running around Tijuana.

This is how community begins.

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LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and What Really Matters

In 2011, I went to the graduation of the Citizens Academy at LAPD. This is a 10-week academy the department offers to the community to familiarize citizens with how officers do their jobs.
      This one was for the LGBTQ community, at the department’s training facility at Elysian Park. Entering, I passed a bust of former Chief Darryl Gates. I took a seat and watched the graduation. The valedictorian was a transgender woman, a student at Cal State Northridge. As she spoke, I was struck by the moment. It was an amazing thing, given all the department had been under the man whose statue stood a couple dozen yards away.
      I remembered that moment when I heard the news that another L.A. police chief, Charlie Beck, had announced his retirement last week.
      The tenure of any chief is complicated, especially in a complicated city like L.A., and crime ebbs and flows from year to year. But it’s important, at moments like these, I think, to reflect on the larger picture.
      The LA Times noted Beck was leaving amid “a stubborn uptick in crime” – four years of crime rising. But truth is, that’s only when you’re marking time as having begun in the last few years. And that’s a very short-sighted view, pampered by the new reality, which is this: Crime in L.A. has fallen dramatically, in some cases to levels not seen since the 1960s.
      We’re now in the eighth year of fewer than 300 killings. As of mid-December, Los Angeles had registered 271 killings in 2017.  For 1967, when the city’s population was a quarter smaller, the city registered 281.
      That’s a stunning feat. Even more so because it takes place in a city with a maelstrom of languages, cultures – from Nigeria and Bangladesh to Korea and Mexico – and neighborhoods, not to mention gaping economic differences, rising homelessness and more.
      Crucial in all this and equally stunning: Gangs have largely stopped the public behavior that did so much to crush working-class neighborhoods. Families in those neighborhoods don’t face the risk to their children they once did. Business owners no longer have massive graffiti to paint over every month.
      Homeowners in black and Latino neighborhoods are now able to unlock the value of their homes – in both sales and home-equity loans – in a way that was impossible a decade ago. Gangs, after all, were always the best rent control.
      In several neighborhoods, it’s now fashionable to put up wood-slat fences. They look great, but when I saw the first one I thought it would be a matter of minutes before it was tagged in some way. I’ve seen those same fences unmarred for months now, years in a couple cases. Those wood-slat fences mark a major change of street culture for Los Angeles.
      Gangs still exist in L.A. and are involved in criminal activity – though I believe they are far smaller in number than before. But their activity is no longer the public stuff — the drive-by shootings, car jackings, taking over a park or apartment complex etc – that so used to blight and create life-threatening danger in the places they called their territory.
 
      A lot went into all these changes and it’s not all due to Beck or even to LAPD alone.
      But the new department is one of the most transformed institutions in California civic life in the last 25 years, as that Citizens Academy graduation made clear. Spend time in any LAPD station watching the officers come and go and you’ll see this very clearly. I think it’s foolish, and short-sighted, to believe that that transformation had nothing to do with the current safe conditions in Los Angeles today. 
 
      Any department faces conflict, drama, willful personalities, and rogue officers. It’s a rough job and we ask police officers to be our marital counselors, mental health professionals, our surrogate fathers and mothers, and a whole lot more, as well as our crime fighters.
 
     All that’s the day-to-day.
      But when a chief announces his retirement, there are more important facts – and a longer view – to consider.

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Manny’s Delivery Service

Couple weeks ago, I spent a morning in federal court in Los Angeles to learn a little more about drug underworld ingenuity.

Federal agents had busted an enterprise known as Manny’s Delivery Service, an organization that they alleged distributed heroin across the San Fernando Valley to customers who’d call in and place their orders.

Manny was the street name of the lead defendant, Sigifrido Gurrola Barrientos (see photo).

These guys reportedly used Uber to transport the proceeds – $129,000 in one instance, according to the indictment. (Read the press release here.)

They seemed to replicate the system that was perfected and taken nationwide by the folks from Xalisco, Nayarit, which I wrote about in my book, Dreamland.

As it turns out, according to defense attorneys, Manny’s was allegedly run by fellows from the Mexican states of Puebla and Guanajuato, which are not states I’ve associated with drug trafficking. Not sure where Mr. Gurrola Barrientos is from. But it’s not surprising the business model would be used by others. There’s no trademark or copyright in the underworld.

I was intrigued by the case as well because I’m fascinated by all the ingenuity displayed in that vast, profit-motivated culture of drug trafficking, particularly from Mexico.

In the 1990s, American medicine began to claim that opiate painkillers could be prescribed virtually indiscriminately, with little risk of addiction to patients. The result over the next two decades was a huge increase in our national supply of painkillers.

That happened without anyone realizing that our heroin market had also shifted during those years. Most of our heroin now came not from the Far East (Turkey, Burma, Afghanistan) but from Latin America – Colombia and, today especially, from Mexico. It got here cheaper and more potent than the Far East stuff.

Truth is, though, most Mexican traffickers for years cared little for heroin, which they viewed as decidedly scuzzy and back-alley and with a relatively small market of tapped-out users in the United States. So they focused more on cocaine and meth, and pot, of course.

Then we began creating scads of new opiate addicts with this expansion of indiscriminate prescribing of narcotic painkillers.

That, in turn, awoke an underworld version of Fedex, and unleashed the powerful and ingeniously creative forces of the Mexican drug-trafficking culture, then largely dormant when it came to heroin. By the way, that’s not to say, necessarily, cartels. Just a widespread culture of drug trafficking, particularly in certain regions of Mexico.

There’s a reason why heroin exists. It’s not because it has much medicinal use. Or, better put, the painkilling benefits it does possess can be provided by other drugs at far less risk of addiction. Heroin exists because it’s a great drug if you’re a trafficker. It’s easy to make and is very condensed. It’s easy to cut – making it profitable to traffic even in small quantities. So small-scale heroin trafficking is a big part of the story of how it gets here from Mexico.

Also, heroin is one of the few drugs that makes sense to sell retail – as it creates customers who must buy your product every day, Christmas included, and usually several times a day.

Thus applying basic business-school principles to heroin vending – principles of marketing, customer service, etc – just naturally occurs to folks.

Hence Manny’s Delivery Service. And a bunch more like them.

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The Sheriff and the Country Boy

I meet a lot of great folks as I talk about Dreamland across America – and hear amazing stories, too.

In Richmond, Virginia recently, where Virginia Commonwealth University had chosen Dreamland as the Common Read for their incoming freshmen, I happened to meet Sheriff Karl Leonard, of nearby Chesterfield County.

We got to talking about a recovery pod – which he calls the Heroin Addiction Recovery Program (HARP) – he instituted in his jail. HARP allows inmates to begin their recovery from addiction, with a nurturing, inmate-led environment. This replaces the stress and tedium of traditionally run jail.

Traditional jail has always been a prod to crime and drug addiction. But sheriffs like Karl Leonard are rethinking how it’s done. I find this transformation of jail, which is growing as a response to our opiate-addiction epidemic, to be one of the most radical and positive ideas happening in America today.

I wrote about another jail, in Kenton County, Kentucky, doing the same thing a while back.

Later, Sheriff Leonard sent me an email with the following story. Please read:

__________

I work very hard with our Heroin Addiction Recovery program (HARP) to educate the public and to break down the stigma that is attached to not only being an addict but a criminal as well. I take recovered addicts from our program out into the community all the time so they can put a face with this disease. And once I do that I have personalized this crisis with them and they can no longer look away. I have these addicts tell their stories which are always compelling and gut wrenching. But just when I think I have heard it all, I get educated myself.

Just a few weeks ago after one such public engagement in the community with two of the HARP members, one male and one female, I decided to take them to lunch at a local Burger King as a reward, which I do often. (They are placed in civilian clothes when we take them out of the jail).

When we pulled into the Burger King parking lot, the male asked me what this was. I was dumfounded by the question and told him it was Burger King. I then asked him if he’d ever been in a Burger King before, thinking he was messing with me. But he said no. I then asked him if he was ever in a McDonald’s before; he again said no.

I shrugged it off and took him inside. He spent several minutes looking at the menu above his head like a child on Christmas morning. He turned to me and asked me if he could get whatever he wanted. I said yes. He then asked me if he could get the biggest thing on the menu and I again said yes, knowing that jail food probably didn’t satisfy this 6’4”, strapping 26-year-old. He then ordered the mushroom Swiss triple burger and a large Coke and fries.

I watched him devour his meal. I asked him if he liked it and he replied he did very much, especially the Coke. I asked him if he had Coke before and he told me he had not. This kid who never had a Burger King or McDonald’s hamburger or a Coke is a heroin addict.

He told me he grew up in a very rural county in Virginia and his father was very strict with him about eating junk food, sugars, sodas, etc. His father made sure they only ate good fresh food without sugars. It is also why he led a life that was drug free – not even marijuana.

His father also helped him with his athletic skills, which helped him become a very good football player in high school. So good he was given a scholarship to play football at a prominent four-year university in our state. I was intrigued by how this seemingly innocent guy became a heroin addict.

Then the common thread to almost all of our heroin addicts revealed itself.

While at the university, he said, he was involved in a bad car crash and suffered a broken femur, shoulder, and other bones. Eventually his doctor gave him Oxycontin and Dilantin pills. He was directed to take four Oxycontin pills a day for 30 days in addition to the Dilantin.

Once the prescriptions ran out he said he started to become very sick but he didn’t know why. He spoke to a friend who told him he was in withdrawal from the painkillers, which was causing his sickness. So he went back to his doctor, who refused to prescribe him any more. He was very sick and tried to get pills on the street but they were hard to get and expensive so he turned to heroin. And that was all it took.

He eventually had bad drug screens at school and was kicked out of the university and lost his full scholarship. When his father found out he was using drugs he disowned him. So now, without a dorm room or family to take him in, he turned to criminal activity to sustain his life.

These stories go on and on. They are all heartbreaking but also examples of how these are not bad people trying to be good but sick people trying to get well. And we are making a difference here with our very unconventional approach to recovery.

Thank you for enlightening a Nation with your book!

Karl

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