Not long ago, in eastern Tennessee, I had the chance to record a conversation with Isabel Workman.
Isabel is an elementary school teacher who, along with her husband, adopted two children born to different mothers, but both dependent on opiates.
She and I had a poignant chat about one of the most lacerating byproducts of the opiate-addiction epidemic in America: the rise in infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, essentially in withdrawals from drugs, these days mostly from narcotics.
That in turn has overwhelmed the foster-children agencies. Many are being raised by their grandparents, while others are being adopted by couples like Isabel and her husband. Without these folks, the country would be in even more serious trouble.
All across America this is increasing, but Eastern Tennessee is one place where it’s felt with special intensity.
Our conversation lasts slightly less than 25 minutes (piano by my daughter).
In Los Angeles, Craigslist has emerged in the last few months as a major new marketplace for illicit fentanyl.
The online classified ad service has for several years been a virtual street corner, a place where drugs are sold under lightly veiled pseudonyms: black-tar heroin (“roofing tar”), crystal methamphetamine (“clear sealant”), or generic and most likely counterfeit oxycodone 30 mg pills (“M30”).
But fentanyl, the deadliest of them all, is a new arrival, apparently within the last year, and for the moment appears to be for sale on Craigslist only on its Los Angeles site.
A search of Los Angeles Craigslist revealed numerous listings for fentanyl code words “China White Doll” or “White China Plates” or “China White Dishes.” A few were even more brazen: China “fenty fent” White read one. The ads usually display no photographs or images other than maps of the areas the vendors purport to serve.
The search did turn up numerous ads of what appeared to be vendors of actual dinnerware; these included photographs of plates, bowls, teacups.
But other ads were like this one, from a West Hollywood vendor, who advertised under the headline, “White China Christmas Edition – $100”:
“Were you left out in the cold? Were you served fake stuff? Are you sick? Let me help you ease your pain. …Tired of the petty games or fake product being sold at a cheaper price, or waiting hours upon hours for the dude.”
Offering “Winter White Fine China,” a Sherman Oaks vendor advertised professionalism, reliability, fast service and “product testing available. No pressure to purchase.”
“Yes honest vendors still exist!” the vendor wrote. “Be cautious, stay alert & don’t get fooled! If you’re not absolutely satisfied we go our separate ways!”
“Mention #painpaingoaway for the sale prices,” read one Wilshire vendor’s ad.
Another in Gardena offered a “brand name substitute of roofing tar”: “$20/strip if you’re buying one, price breaks if you need more. White china plates also available as well, $100/half set $180/full set. TEXT ONLY PLEASE. When you contact me, please include your name, what you’re looking to purchase and if you’re mobile or if you need delivery (If delivery, include your location as well)”
Many listed the keywords that buyers might be using to find vendors: “Addys, blues, China, perks, xanax, white, coke, fent, Subs, Percocet, oxycodone, Norco, Suboxone, adderall, fentanyl, Dilaudid, tramadol.”
I sent an email to Craigslist media department requesting an interview on how and why this occurred and is allowed, but I’ve received no response.
“We’ve observed a high frequency of involvement of Craigslist in the dissemination of [illegal] drugs,” said Ben Barron, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles who is prosecuting the region’s first Craigslist-related fentanyl death case. The case involves Andrew Madi, an alleged Craigslist heroin and fentanyl dealer who is accused of selling fentanyl that killed a buyer last summer.
Madi, 25, was indicted earlier this month on charges that he sold fentanyl to a buyer, recently out of drug treatment, who responded to his Craigslist Los Angeles ad. Barron said Madi allegedly advertised “roofing tar” (black-tar heroin). Then, via texts, Madi allegedly told the buyer he was out of roofing tar, but had “China White,” offering a money-back guarantee if the buyer was unsatisfied with his product.
When Madi texted him later asking his opinion of what he’d been sold, the buyer replied that “this white does the job for sure.” On July 6, the buyer was found dead in his apartment, with a baggie containing fentanyl nearby. Officials allege that Madi had been advertising fentanyl, heroin and Xanax on Craigslist since March.
“We have very good reason to believe that this was just one small slice of the trafficking [Madi] was doing using many email addresses and burner cellphones” on Craigslist, Barron said.
A cursory check of Craigslists in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Charlotte, San Francisco, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas turned up only a small number of similar listings, or none at all. New York’s listing offered a handful of such ads. San Diego and Orange County Craigslists had several, though far fewer, suspect listings than did Los Angeles.
Barron suggested the reason may be related to Los Angeles’s position as a major drug hub, both from Mexico and from China, where much of the fentanyl powder is made by hundreds of chemical companies.
“Even if we don’t have the same degree of opiate overdose problem as you’d see in the Rust Belt, the drugs are flowing through here,” he said.
One long-time heroin addict, who requested anonymity, suggested the Craigslist fentanyl marketplace was due to the bust of an extensive, well-used San Fernando Valley-based heroin delivery services — known by addicts and police as Manny’s Delivery Service — in December, 2017. Addicts and mid-level dealers from as far away as Anaheim and Bakersfield were said to patronize the service.
The service reputedly did not sell fentanyl, but the addict said many people have switched to fentanyl after Manny’s cheap, potent heroin, and the organization’s convenient delivery, were no longer available — though other services have stepped into the vacuum Manny’s left behind.
The Craigslist ads for fentanyl, he noted, began popping up not long after Manny’s was taken down by local and federal authorities. The cases against 16 defendants in the Manny’s indictment are still winding their way through court.
Fentanyl might have arrived anyway, said the user, given its advantages as an underworld drug. “But I can tell you without a doubt what has happened to the L.A. dope scene since they were busted: Fentanyl is everywhere. There’s a lot of people who are choosing to use fentanyl,” he said in a telephone interview.
If you have any stories of buying fentanyl, heroin, or other illegal drugs on Craigslist, or from Manny’s Delivery Service, please feel free to comment below, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fentanyl is a legitimate medical painkiller – a synthetic opioid – used often in cardiac surgery and to control chronic pain. But it is up to a hundred times more potent than morphine and highly addictive, and thus has become a street drug as America’s epidemic of opiate addiction has spread in recent years. The epidemic began with doctors overprescribing narcotic pain pills. Many patients grew addicted to those pills and some of them switched to heroin, which is mostly from Mexico or Colombia. Recently, though, traffickers have turned to fentanyl as a heroin substitute because it is cheaper to manufacture and, due to its potency, easier to smuggle in small quantities.
Public health and law enforcement officials attribute the record overdose-death rates of the last few years to widespread addiction to opiates across the United States and the arrival of illicit fentanyl – often in powder form – on the streets in response.
Fentanyl has become widely offered for sale on the Dark Web — that part of the Internet that requires a special connection and expertise to connect to. But Los Angeles appears to be the first place where the drug is offered on the open web.
The emergence of the Craigslist fentanyl marketplace is alarming, Barron said, because at least “on the Dark Web, there’s a degree of sophistication involved in that, whereas anybody can use Craigslist.”
UPDATE: As of March 25, 2019, Craigslist in Los Angeles, as well as in other cities I checked, appeared to have stopped the drug-dealing ads under the terms “china white,” “roofing tar,” and “clear sealant ” – though a small number could still be found for “M30.”
Reynoso was part of L.A. crime lore. He was a member of Big Hazard, an East LA street gang.
Later, he was made a member of the Mexican Mafia while in prison. He was one of the 22 Eme members indicted in the first federal RICO case against the gang — coming in 1995, and hingeing on the testimony of Ernie “Chuco” Castro, up to that point one of the most influential members of the organization.
The trial pulled back the veil on the mafia in several ways – one of which was to reveal its scheme for using street gang members to tax drug dealers in the barrios of Southern California, the revenue for which was funneled to mafia members and their associates.
The scheme remains in place today and has turned the Mexican Mafia into more than a prison gang –rather, an organization with enormous influence beyond prison walls.
At his passing, he was deemed the highest-ranking active Mexican Mafia member.
The last few years have seen the passing of several Eme figures from those years — those who formed or spread the Eme: Peter “Sana” Ojeda, Frank “Frankie B” Buelna, Ruben Rodriguez, “Black Dan” Barela. Joe Morgan and Benjamin “Topo” Peters died years ago. Many others have dropped out of the gang while in prison – an exodus that began with Castro, who went into federal witness protection, and, before him, Ramon “Mundo” Mendoza.
Most of the older Eme members, like Reynoso, were heroin addicts on the street — reflecting the fact that their criminal careers began in the late 1960s, early 1970s — a time when heroin crept into the Mexican-American neighborhoods of Southern California with a vengeance.
This summer, a sculptor built a steel, 11-foot, 800-pound bent heroin spoon. With the help of an gallery owner, he put it on a trailer and drove it to the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin.
The bent-spoon protest of the country’s opiate epidemic by Massachusetts sculptor Domenic Esposito and Fernando Alvarez, owner of a Connecticut art gallery, stayed in front of the company’s Stamford, CT offices for only two hours before police impounded the sculpture, but it gained worldwide attention.
Alvarez was arrested and eventually convicted of a misdemeanor charge of blocking free passage.
I was in Boston recently and had a chance to meet and talk with Esposito about the episode and what brought it on.
Our conversation ended up including his brother’s addiction, drug marketing, Americans’ pain, and #thespoon movement they hope to ignite.
Great story. Take a listen. Share it if you like it:
It now appears that within the NIH push is what is described to me as “a lot” of money (though how much is as yet unknown) to establish three research centers around the country. Here are the guidelines for applying for that money.
Sounds like it might be a good moment for folks in the tri-state Ohio River Valley, so badly hit by the epidemic and deindustrialization, to marshal some forces and look to the future of what such a center can mean for research, dollars, and attracting PhDs to the area — and what all that might mean, in turn, for regional economic development.
They might also consider, as I wrote two years ago, what such a center could mean for all those recovering addicts now studying to be drug counselors and social workers, who might be hired to help in the studies such a center would fund.
After so many years of negative behavior, many I’ve met are now eager to be part of something positive and something bigger than themselves. Harnessing them could mean a massive infusion of new energy to a region that’s lost a lot of it.
In Louisville the other day, I wanted to see how jail was changing in America.
This epidemic of opiate addictions calling on us to reexamine a lot about how we live, our values, culture, ideas and institutions we’ve taken for granted.
One of them is jail. Jail has always been a crippling liability in our fight against drug abuse. Jails are usually places where humans vegetate, sit around, argue, learn better criminal techniques, then get out weary and stressed and, if they’re addicted to drugs, they head straight to the dealer’s house.
This epidemic is forcing new ideas. One of them is jail turned into an asset, a place of nurturing, of communion as addicts learn to help each other.
That’s a bizarre concept. I never thought I’d write “nurturing” and “jail” in the same sentence, but it’s happening.
The state of Kentucky seems furthest along in all this. I wrote an Op-Ed column for the NY Times about a visit I paid to the jail in Kenton County, Kentucky. Yet what’s being tried in Kenton County – and a couple dozen other county jails in Kentucky — began in Louisville – in Metro Jail.
Well, if “we can’t arrest our way out of this,” as is so often said, then we need more drug-addiction treatment. Yet this epidemic has swamped our treatment-center infrastructure. New centers are costly to build, politically difficult to site, and entering them is beyond the means of most uninsured street addicts, anyway.
I know that jailing addicts is anathema to treatment advocates. But opiates are mind-controlling beasts. Waiting for an addict to reach rock bottom and make a rational choice to seek treatment sounds nice in theory. But it ignores the nature of the drugs in question, while also assuming a private treatment bed is miraculously available at the moment the street addict is willing to occupy it. With opiates rock bottom is often death.
Jail can be a necessary, maybe the only, lever with which to encourage or force an addict to seek treatment before it’s too late. In jail, addicts first interface with the criminal-justice system, long before they commit crimes that warrant a prison sentence. Once detoxed of the dope that has controlled their decisions, jail is where addicts more clearly behold the wreckage of their lives. The problem has been that it’s at this very moment of contrition when they have been plunged into a jail world of extortion, violence, and tedium. It’s a horrible waste of an opportunity, and almost guarantees recidivism.
With this epidemic, though, we’re seeing new approaches – jail as a place of rehabilitation, a place where recovery can begin.
Several years ago, as heroin began to grip the area, the Louisville jail saw inmates dying from overdoses.
Mark Bolton, the jail’s director, said the spate of deaths forced new ideas.
“We modeled a pod on outside treatment (centers),” he said. “It became a matter of taking the resources we had and repurposing them. We sent people [to drug rehabilitation centers on the outside] and found out how they run their peer detox program. We learned from them.”
Louisville Metro began with female inmates. Those who were just off the street and detoxing, and who normally were spread across the jail, were placed together in one pod, christened Enough is Enough. This allowed more focus on their needs, and got them away from other inmates who were angered by their withdrawal symptoms, which included vomiting, diarrhea, screaming, insomnia and more.
Jail officials began allowing people in recovery into the detox pod as well. These recovering addicts mentored the new arrivals – washing and soothing them. Officers preferred it, as they no longer had to clean up vomit and diarrhea.
In addition to bathing and caring for those in withdrawal, inmates take classes in relapse prevention, understanding criminal thinking, accountability, parenting, and more; they run their own 12-step groups.
As the Enough is Enough pod began to function, there were fewer fights, less contraband. “Inmates into their recovery and into their sobriety are self-policing. The wear and tear is less,” Bolton said. “After we worked out the bugs, we began to see some of these people show progress. The inmates into their treatment appreciated the fact that they were caring for a human being that was at a place where they had been once.”
When they leave jail, they’re given a Vivitrol shot, which blocks opiates, and they were connected with housing and follow-up Vivitrol shots.
The jail now has the one women’s pod and three pods for men: 56 detox beds and 64 recovery beds, total.
I visited the pod – with about 30 women, four of whom were detoxing. The walls were covered with art work.
(Click here to hear the end of the pod’s afternoon meeting that day.)
It seemed, finally, a nurturing place in jail – far more about recovery than its connecting pod, where fights and loud noise were common until the early morning.
I spoke at length with a woman named Kara, whose addiction was more than 20 years old. This was her 17th time in jail. She had come from washing the vomit off another woman who had just arrived in the pod.
Here’s our interview:
The Louisville jail experiment isn’t a cure-all – no one thing is for this opiate-addiction epidemic. And the jail has difficulty tracking inmates who leave, so it’s unclear how well they do on the outside. What’s more, inmates by this time face a daunting uphill trudge to sobriety, hampered by family dysfunction on the outside, shredded personal relationships, a private sector wary of hiring them, and on and on.
And of course, there isn’t nearly enough in available treatment options.
“I would love to shut some of these programs down,” Bolton said. “This shouldn’t be the jail’s responsibility. [Addiction] is a public health issue. Our job is detention, protection of the public, to get people to court. When we have to become the quasi mental health facility for people who are poor and don’t have access to services, or for people who are drug addicts and who’ve created these chaotic lifestyles for themselves and can’t get treatment in the community — then we become this de facto fallback place for everybody. That’s not what jails are designed to do, nor should they be.”
Yet until a massive investment in community drug rehab and medically assisted treatment takes place, it’s likely that pods like Enough is Enough will be necessary.
It also occurs to me that with jail rethought and remade — a nurturing place — we have the chance that it will be an asset in the next drug scourge that comes along.
Either way, as with Kenton County, it seems like a better bet of public money than the way jail has been done up to now.
A couple weeks ago I was in the Midwest, speaking about Dreamland.
I decided to add a couple days to the trip to spend more time in places where I was visiting than I’ve done in the past.
First stop was Whitehall, a town of about 18,000, next to the airport in Columbus, Ohio.
I got there a little early because I wanted to see a new idea the town had instituted.
Whitehall Fire Department has established its firehouse as a Safe Station – meaning that addicts can come by, no questions asked, and will be shuttled to treatment. This has been tried by police departments elsewhere, but in Whitehall they decided on the fire department, believing that most folks would be more at ease there than showing up to talk to police.
The idea had been in place about six weeks and 54 people had made use of it. Whitehall being part of the Columbus metro area, the vast majority of Safe Station drop-ins are not from the town.
One fellow who dropped by was Matt, who grew up in a fairly difficult family but in a middle-class town nearby. He played football, baseball, basketball in high school. In his town, sports were it, he said. Young men got their identity from their participation, or stardom, in sports.
Readers of Dreamland may feel where this is going.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
When the Senate’s health-care bill died this week, it was worth noting the few who led the revolt.
Most were senators from states hardest hit by our epidemic of opiate addiction:
Maine (Susan Collins), West Virginia (Shelly Moore Capito), Utah (Mike Lee), Ohio (Rob Portman).
“I didn’t come to Washington to hurt people,” Shelly Moore Capito said.
Let’s leave aside how the bill would have done away with basic health care for millions of working folks and provided a tax cut for wealthy people.
One of the biggest problems with it, I think, was that it would have reversed Medicaid expansion and that meant taking away coverage for drug rehabilitation from hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions of them.
I could not understand how that was a good idea.
It was also interesting to see how, as the debate progressed through the spring to now, a lot of people began to realize what they were losing.
In so many areas where Donald Trump did best in November’s election, areas he promised to make great again, there is a documented need for massive investment in more drug rehabilitation capacity, not less. That is not an opinion. What exists is saturated. Getting into rehab takes weeks, months. Many addicts have no resources of their own with which to seek treatment.
I wrote in another post that opiate addiction was the crucial element in Trump’s victories in several states that were in turn essential to his capturing the presidency.
Eight months later, the Senate’s health-care carnival emphasized my belief that this issue is one of the most potent political forces of our time.
In the spring of 2015, shortly after Dreamland was released, I received a call from Hillary Clinton’s campaign advisor for health issues. Hillary was feeling the ferocity of parents in Iowa and New Hampshire from all walks of life, horrified at their children’s addiction and not knowing where to turn. This surprised the candidate, her advisor told me.
I spoke with her for about ninety minutes. I told her that I thought this was the great silent issue in America today and whoever truly owned it, embraced it, treated it as a thing of the heart, would have a good chance of getting votes from unexpected places, but that this probably would not be felt in opinion polls ahead of time. Mrs. Clinton did some of that, but never enough, and in the end she wrote a position paper and that amounted to most of her campaign’s attention to opiate addiction. I might be wrong, but she didn’t seem to understand the latent power of the issue. Least she didn’t act on it. That was a huge mistake.
Politicians would do well to better understand the deep well of pain and anxiety surrounding, and thus the political power within, this issue. It’s not something expressed easily in polls. People aren’t likely to admit to a pollster on a phone that a loved one is an addict.
But it’s there and dims the view of the future of so many people, the prospects of so many towns and counties, the economies of so many regions, and thus is of paramount importance to them. Right up there with jobs – connected inextricably with jobs, in fact. In so many depressed areas, huge numbers of folks can’t pass an employer’s drug test.
Nor does it take many addicts for that foreboding to spread. A few cases in a small town, I think, are all that’s needed. People see it hit almost anyone and seemingly at random – like a plague – including families who before had no connection to the drug world or the criminal justice system. Soon everyone’s view of the future turns negative.
On top of that, today we have the increasing nationwide notoriety of the issue as compared with just two years ago. An awakening has taken place in those short years – a reckoning and a truth-telling when before there was subterfuge and fabrication.
Overall, this is healthy – for the families now telling the truth and for the country, I think.
But one effect is that the knowledge, and thus dread, has spread to even families untouched by addiction.
In that room where 13 of them put that bill together, Senate Republicans didn’t seem to understand that.
That was a huge mistake.
Because in the small towns or suburbs where folks live, they now know the high school’s quarterback has landed in jail again, and that their pastor’s daughter died from an overdose and that it wasn’t a heart attack after all.
The rule of law is something to be treasured. It is precious beyond value. It has been achieved in relatively few countries and times through history. Yet little good comes without it. No real economic development, no great technological innovation, no slow march of prosperity, no public safety, no civic life.
After living in Mexico, it seems to me the rule of law is achieved through culture and a host of attitudes that give rise to prolonged (taxpayer funded) investment in infrastructure and government.
The rule of law is accomplished through facts on the ground, through small things working well. These include courts, prisons, police, civil service, decent public-employee salaries and training, but also parks, street lamps, storm drains, clear title to property, and much more — above all at the local level.
Most of this is what Mexico lacks or has neglected.
Superimposed on that civic weakness, and growing from it, has been the venomous presence of drug traffickers who have lost any discretion they once displayed and now behave with medieval cruelty. But what allowed them to go from hillbillies to national security threats in the span of a few decades is the lack of rule of law and all that I mention above. The result is the difference between 3000 murders in Juarez a few years back while El Paso tallied only 20 or so. On one side are strong civic institutions and well-motivated law enforcement of various stripes working together; on the other, infrastructure has gone begging due to lack of budget, corruption, lack of accountability, and a general belief that local government isn’t worth the time.
All that is what got Javier Valdez killed a month ago today.
Valdez, you may have read by now, was an esteemed, brave journalist who chronicled the drug world of Sinaloa in books and his newspaper Riodoce.
He was gunned down by masked men who accosted him as he was getting into his car not far from his newspaper. To make it seem as if robbery was the motive, they took his car, ditching it not far away. The computer and cell phone he was carrying have not been found, according to his newspaper.
I met Javier in 2014. I saw him again in February. We had breakfast to talk about things in Sinaloa. In the meantime, I had provided a promotional quote to the English-language version of his book Los Levantados (The Taken) because, despite knowing him only casually, I admired the work he and his newspaper, Riodoce, did consistently.
The Taken (University of Oklahoma Press), by the way, offers an amazing view of worlds few of us will enter. You should read it. The first story is about a Mayan Indian from Chiapas who fathered six pairs of twin girls and, to support them, was recruited to do some kind of work in Sinaloa, only to find that the work he was hired to do was not in agriculture, but in something connected to drug trafficking, though he never figured out what that was because a battle between cartels consumed the region where he was sent. Just stunning stories.
In the month since Javier’s death, we’ve heard the calls for the government to do more to protect journalists, end the impunity with which the underworld rules many parts of the country. I echo those calls.
But what ails Mexico isn’t only lack of political will. It is certainly that, but it is also a systematic neglect of local government that goes far back in the country’s long history. So even with the political will to find the killers of Javier Valdez, investigators would be hampered by the lack of tools that their counterparts in other countries take for granted.
There is no way to make good on calls of better investigations without a mighty strengthening of the local and regional public institutions that go into such investigations.
As we examine all the reasons why brave people like Javier Valdez have fallen, Mexico needs to look to its local government and build up its institutions, its capacity, its ability to protect its citizens and the ability to find justice for them when it cannot.
Like all politics, justice, at its root, is local.
Ensuring that would be the greatest tribute to a brave man.
The New England Journal of Medicine startled everyone this week by a posting a one-sentence warning over the so-called Porter & Jick letter to the editor that the journal published in January of 1980.
The warning note reads: “For reasons of public health, readers should be aware that this letter has been `heavily and uncritically cited’ as evidence that addiction is rare with opioid therapy.”
I find it remarkable that the NEJM did this, particularly so long after the letter itself was published in the journal. Apparently this kind of note is very rare.
But I think it confirms what I wrote in Dreamland – in which I interviewed the main author of the letter, Dr. Herschel Jick.
I think it’s important to reiterate the impact, as well as the intent, of the letter.
As written, it is entirely correct. That a data base of hospital patient records, that Dr. Jick ran, and still runs, found the following: of 11,800 patients given narcotic painkillers while in hospital, only four developed an addiction to those drugs.
Remember this was data taken from the 1960s and 1970s, a time when narcotic painkillers were rigorously controlled, and never given to patients to take home with them. So it stands to reason that patients, under such strict controls and administered the drugs only in hospital, would rarely develop addictions – as the letter’s headline in the journal read when it was published: Addiction Rare in Patients Treated With Narcotics.
They simply didn’t have access to large supplies of narcotics, and especially drugs to take home with them, as patients routinely do today. Hence they didn’t run much risk of addiction. (The whole thing, btw, helped change my mind about what ignites a scourge of addiction, which I now believe is not demand, but supply. Supply first sparks demand.)
The problem came not with how the letter was written, but how it was interpreted, then used, by others. Through the late 1980s and 1990s, it was widely cited, quoted, footnoted – as my research in Dreamland made clear and as a recent letter to the NEJM from the Canadian doctors confirmed. It was deemed to be proof that somehow science now knew that addiction was rare when opiates were used to treat pain. Through the years, it became known, through a process similar to a game of telephone, as some kind of “landmark study” that presumably refuted much about what we know about narcotic painkillers and addiction.
The Porter & Jick letter – 101 words – neither did, nor intended, anything of the kind.
It was also used, of course, by pharmaceutical companies – especially Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin – as proof that their drugs no longer caused addiction when they were used to treat pain. The company used the statistic that “less than 1 percent” of all patients administered opiate painkillers drugs – especially OxyContin – grew addicted to it. This was not true nor supported by any science. It was not supported by Porter & Jick, which was making an entirely different observation. Yet the letter was used to convince a generation of doctors that science now knew new things about narcotic painkillers and one was that they were “virtually nonaddictive” when used to treat pain. A claim that, again, has no basis in science or the letter.
All this I wrote in Dreamland, which came out two years ago. I found the whole story to be an unsettling episode in how scientific thinking changes based on no evidence at all, but due instead to deft and relentless marketing.
I’ll add one more thing. The NEJM’s warning note was prompted, as I said, by a review of the letter and its influence in scholarly studies that was published by some Canadian doctors in the journal this week.
I read the letter these doctors wrote and I don’t see Dreamland credited or footnoted.
I’m trying to take it all in with equanimity. Yet I’ll admit to some frustration to have done so much research and storytelling that brought this to light as part of Dreamland’s larger story of how this opiate-addiction epidemic spread, and which others have read and learned from, and then not have it reflected in the work those people do. On the contrary, the Canadian doctors’ letter is presented as some new revelation, which it is not.
So I’ll just say that it would have been nice to see my work credited in the recent NEJM report by those Canadian doctors, as well as media coverage of that letter. I’ll leave it at that.
One important thing my mother told me when I was growing up was that first I should find the work I loved to do in life. That if I did, or didn’t, it would affect all the other aspects of life: sleep, romance, family.
I’m lucky. I love what I do. I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and when I’m on my deathbed I’m quite sure I’ll be making deals with God, saying, I’m happy to go but just let finish this one story first. Nothing I’ve done in the last 30 years has been drudgery, tedium. It has been exciting, mentally stimulating — and it paid the bills.
That didn’t happen by chance. I worked at it very hard for many years. I was helped by several great editors who pushed me to learn the craft and forge a writing style – sometimes not so politely.
I was helped above all by my parents who did not give us what we wanted growing up. They gave us what we needed. They gave us education and experience, above all. They gave us far less stuff than other friends I grew up with were getting from their parents. Later in life, I was very happy that was true.
I bring this up because I believe it is relevant to the opiate-addiction epidemic we face as a nation and a culture.
Recovery from addiction, I believe, means finding fulfillment in some project, endeavor or work. Finding something you love to do, something that means more than dope, that stimulates your mind more.
One way we, as a culture, have failed our kids is that too often we believe the stuff they get (and have demanded) without working for it, and that we give them, is somehow going to help them be happy. We as a culture have avoided pain, run from it. And we want our kids to be spared any pain at all – even hard work. But no one find’s his calling in life without hard work, sometimes demeaning work.
I hated all the years I spent washing dishes in cafeterias and restaurants while I was in high school, but I’m plenty happy I did it for it taught me to do things I didn’t want to do, taught me how important education is, and that fulfillment comes from finding the work you love and spending your life trying to get good at it.
So many kids I see have been given far too much without working for it. Too many haven’t learned that through hard work, pushing yourself to seek that calling, you actually learn and achieve and feel good about what you’ve done.
On the other hand, heroin, seems to me, is simply the final “stuff” for a culture that believes that more stuff leads to happiness. (Writing about heroin these days is really another way of writing about America, who we are and what we’ve become, I’ve grown to believe.)
My mom was right. It’s through hard work in something you love that you achieve fulfillment.
“To find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness. Nothing is more tragic than failure to discover one’s true business in life, or to find that one has drifted or been forced by circumstance into an uncongenial calling.”
“The opposite of a career is neither leisure nor culture, but aimlessness, capriciousness, the absence of cumulative achievement in experience, on the personal side, and idle display, parasitic dependence upon the others, on the social side.”
Interesting stuff, and relevant more than ever to today’s America.