Francesquita Martinez’s words are slow and deliberate, perhaps a result of the methadone she’s taking to kick her addiction, perhaps because she is lost in the memory of September 29, 1999 — the Archangel’s day. The day the war on drugs came to Chimayó.
Francesquita, 8 years old at the time, had slept overnight at her grandparents’ house, where her father was living. She was getting ready for school that morning when she came across him, looking worried. “Good morning, baby,” he said, placing his index finger over his mouth and listening as if he heard movement outside. “Shhhhh.”
Within seconds, men in SWAT gear battered down the door of the house. “GET DOWN ON THE FLOOR!” they shouted, assault rifles drawn. “I sat on the couch watching my dad being slammed to the floor, guns pointing at him, at my grandma, even one at me,” Francesquita, now 30, recalls. All she could do was cry. “I just wanted so badly to run to my dad and lay on him and tell them, ‘Please don’t take him! Please don’t take him.’ But I couldn’t — I was frozen.”
Almost everyone in Chimayó, a rural New Mexico village located halfway between the art meccas of Santa Fe and Taos, can recall a fragment of that morning. If nothing else they remember the sounds — the sirens and helicopters — and the overwhelming feeling of confusion. At dawn, 150 law-enforcement officers, including DEA and FBI agents, descended on the town, beat down doors, and in one instance shot and killed pet dogs in their determination to find suspects in the heroin trade. Thirty-four people were arrested.
The national media pounced at the opportunity to narrate Chimayó’s demise: The village became a news sensation, drawing reporters from across the country, eager to mine an exotic new narrative about heroin. This wasn’t the standard news story about addicts in urban hellscapes: It was about a Hispanic hamlet with breathtaking vistas. “Beautiful land, ugly addictions,” as The Los Angeles Times put it.
Francesquita describes the day of the bust during a recent visit to her mother’s house, a single-wide in Chimayó, located off a labyrinthine county road lined with soaring cottonwoods, thick-walled adobe homes and a morada, a meeting house for a religious brotherhood. Just down the road is the seven-acre Barela compound, where dealers once plied their trade: Confiscated by the federal government, it’s now overgrown with mullein, wild lettuce, juniper and cota plants among half-buried car parts and tangled barbed wire. Francesquita says her grandparents’ place still stands on the other side of town, across the arroyos that overflow in the monsoon season and State Road 76, where lowriders cruise on Sundays.
Did any good come of the bust?
“I was too hurt and sad and confused” to know, she says.
This story isn’t just a news headline to me; it’s personal history. I grew up eight miles northeast, in an even tinier village called Truchas, and watched the news coverage from our living room that night. At 13, I saw our communities become a spectacle. It wasn’t lost on me that the raid happened on the day the Archangel Michael is said to have defeated Lucifer in a war over heaven. The bust has hung like a specter over Chimayó ever since.
My mother, then the principal of Chimayó Elementary, can still picture the swarm of helicopters hanging low on the skyline when she drove to school that morning. Some of her students, children rumored to be the sons and daughters of the arrested, were no-shows. Others arrived for class, stunned. One parent wept in her office: Her husband had been arrested and their house raided. Where they would sleep that night, she didn’t know. In a school with fewer than 300 students, many of them related or neighbors, it was as if the rapture had hit. And those who remained either bore witness or were left to pick up the pieces.
“Que lástima,” my mother says of the day. What a tragedy.
I often tagged alongside my mom on after-school home visits, riding shotgun in an old forest-green Buick down Chimayó’s dirt lanes. She’d park the car, climb up makeshift porches and knock on doors, one after another. “Donde ’sta?” she’d ask, looking for this kid and that kid who hadn’t come to school that day. It wasn’t until years later that I found out who we were searching for: absentees, the ones whose parents had fallen into addiction or were in jail.
I couldn’t comprehend that substance abuse had arrived in our pocket of the world, until then renowned for chiles and religious pilgrimages. Nor could I understand how the Española Valley, which stretches from the Jemez Mountains to the Sangre de Cristos, was being linked to drug trafficking in cities like Baltimore and Los Angeles. We were remote and rural. Big cities seemed worlds away.
Only 3,000 people lived in the community, so the arrests touched nearly every family. Chimayó, it turned out, was the first stop in a sweeping nationwide sting called Operation Tar Pit, involving hundreds of DEA and FBI agents, local police and sheriffs in a crackdown on drug traffickers peddling black tar heroin from Nayarit, Mexico. At least a dozen cities were raided during the operation, netting more than 200 arrests from San Diego to Phoenix to Detroit. Chimayó was the smallest target by far.
From Sept. 29, 1999, onward, the Española Valley would be baptized a drug den, a characterization that felt like an affliction or a stamp of deviance. ABC went so far as to claim that one in four in Chimayó was a heroin addict, a statistic with no apparent basis in reality. Forever after, people from the Española Valley, myself included, were considered losers or drug addicts. The perception lingered throughout high school, college in New Mexico and grad school on the East Coast. The scrutiny was both defining and inescapable.
Parents went to prison, children were raised by relatives and families were split apart. Sixty percent of children in poverty in Rio Arriba County today live with grandparents because their parents are in jail or dead. At least five children at Chimayó Elementary went on to die of apparent drug overdoses.
But one thing stayed remarkably the same after the bust: addiction. Rio Arriba County, where half of Chimayó is located, remained number one in the state for overdose deaths, a ranking it’s held every year from 1996 to 2020. (The other half of Chimayó is in Santa Fe County, which ranked eighth.) The raid didn’t even reduce heroin availability. Addiction in Chimayó is still so intergenerational that some residents can hardly envision a future without drugs and overdoses.
“It was a waste of taxpayer money,” Francesquita’s mother, Bertha, declares about the bust. Others say they felt humiliated by the attention it brought, even to people who weren’t involved in the drug scene. “We all felt the shame,” adds a neighbor, who still lives near the old Barela compound.
Francesquita’s own journey toward rehabilitation has been fitful. She started abusing opioids after the death of her father, Halbert, who spent four years in prison and died in 2010 of a brain aneurysm. She tried buprenorphine, a medication to treat opioid addiction, while pregnant with her son, but after his birth she started exchanging her prescription on the street for heroin. Finally, she got help through a methadone program in Española. “I’m proud of myself. I don’t even get the craving anymore,” she says while smoking a cigarette outside her mother’s place.
Good roofs, secret recruits
In earlier times, before Chimayó was branded as a heroin capital, it was famed for its generations of weavers, sprawling apple orchards and a church called El Santuario de Chimayó, the “Lourdes of the Americas,” where thousands flock each year in a holy pilgrimage. Driving through there today, it’s possible to see both resilience and blight — thriving fields among abandoned houses and acequias flowing with water beside fallow plots of land. Only drug dealers and employees of the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory had the good roofs in town, a postmaster in Truchas once put it.
Few actually remember a time before LANL’s arrival in 1943, when scientists were secretly recruited to northern New Mexico to make the atomic bomb. Over the years, the lab would hold the region’s best-paying jobs, pulling men and women out of their fields in the Española Valley and into blue-collar work in Los Alamos, an exodus that left a generations-old agricultural economy fragile. It was a point of pride to work at the labs, but also a point of contention: Hispanic or Indigenous workers were often given the most dangerous and low-paying jobs, as janitors or security guards or working on crews cleaning up nuclear waste.
Once self-sufficient communities like Chimayó and Truchas were transformed into rural commuter suburbs that saw little of the prosperity Los Alamos enjoyed, creating a racial and economic chasm that only widened with time. Los Alamos County, almost 70 percent white, consistently has one of the highest median incomes in the nation, whereas neighboring Rio Arriba County, 70 percent Hispanic, has one of the highest rates of poverty in the state.
The decline in agriculture led to another consequence — a loss of cultural practices tied to the land, fueling a deep sense of melancholy that struck entire families. Substance abuse offered an escape, if temporary, from what I saw as a slow social death — the loss of self-determination and sense of belonging. A beloved priest known to rail against heroin in his sermons went so far as to say that the labs had “dried up the souls of the people here.”
It wasn’t, however, until Vietnam vets came home addicted to opium that a market for chiva really began to flourish in northern New Mexico. Brown heroin dominated the scene until the mid-’90s when black tar heroin arrived — inky, viscous and 70 percent pure. Grown in Mexico, it was sold by distribution cells in cities across the United States, from Anchorage and Pittsburgh to Atlanta. The smallest cell settled in Chimayó, a stopover between the Mexican border and the rest of America.
From pickle jars to choppers
By the mid-to-late ’90s, the town was beset by a spate of accidental drug overdoses. The DEA declared that a staggering 85 deaths in Chimayó were attributed to black tar heroin between 1995 and 1998, a number that U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno later quoted on CNN. A recent review of state health records reveals that the 85 number was almost certainly inflated: Across all of Rio Arriba County there were 63 unintentional overdose deaths during that time, some attributed to substances other than heroin or to combinations of alcohol and drugs (see sidebar).
Whatever the number, the community was exhausted by loss. “It was dismal,” says Quintin McShan, a retired state police captain patrolling Chimayó at the time. “They were filling up the cemetery with mostly Hispanic youths.”
Desperate for help, a small group of residents formed the Chimayó Crime Prevention Organization and began to press lawmakers for an intervention. Burglary and larceny had “reached epidemic proportions,” in the words of Bruce Richardson, the group’s president and a self-described “newbie” to the area. Sue Ellen Strale, who would go on to found the Chimayó Youth Conservation Corps, recalled that even before she signed the final paperwork on her adobe house in the village, “the place was cleaned out.” Addicts might take anything from a lightbulb on someone’s porch to a TV, then sell it to feed their habit. Used hypodermic needles often ended up on the ground or in local acequias, where farmers drew water for crops. In a dramatic flourish, Richardson gathered up some needles, put them in a pickle jar and wielded it at hearings and news conferences, a prop that never failed to garner outrage.
As a public expression of the community’s grief and longing for change, resident Linda Pedro called on the Penitente brotherhood to lead a series of pilgrimages from Española, nine miles southwest of Chimayó, to El Santuario. Mothers of children who’d died of overdoses, public health officials and county commissioners were among the supplicants. One mother carried a large-scale portrait of her daughter, Venessa Valerio, a nine-year-old diabetic who was fatally shot by a heroin addict who’d broken into their home looking for insulin syringes.
To the relief of many, U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico helped bring together the U.S. Department of Justice, DEA, FBI and local law enforcement for a crackdown. It was critical to declare war on the “terrible scourge of heroin,” the Republican lawmaker said at a Senate field hearing in Española, in March 1999. Chimayó could “serve as an example for other rural communities in distress” — a showcase on how to exorcise drug-related crime with the right federal resources.
But it wasn’t until helicopters roared into the village at dawn on Sept. 29 that anti-crime residents, along with everyone else, recognized the scale of the operation. With three helicopters and a five-mile train of law-enforcement vehicles, the raid aimed to root out heroin with the force of a military operation. “It was a war zone,” Strale recalls. “The sky rumbled.”
By the time the sun had crested the horizon, bleary-eyed locals had been pulled from their homes at gunpoint and taken into custody at a National Armory in Española, which served as informal headquarters for the operation. Thirty-three were arrested that morning. The last person to be booked, Corpentino Vigil, turned himself in by week’s end.
José Martinez, 16, was arrested at his mother’s house and lined up outside with other men in the family, so early that they were all in their boxer shorts. He was tried as an adult and did 41 months at the Federal Correctional Institution in El Paso. Felix Barela received 78 months for dealing heroin, cocaine and methadone; others went away for two years for distributing less than 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of heroin.
Halbert Martinez, Francesquita’s father, would plead guilty to “using a communications facility to facilitate drug trafficking,” landing him a four-year sentence at one of the country’s most notorious prisons, the ADX federal supermax in Colorado — the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” — where inmates have included cartel overlord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a cofounder of Al Qaeda. None of the Chimayó suspects were kingpins: Most were small-time sellers, addicted to drugs and living in mobile homes. When they got arrested, they left a vacuum that was quickly filled by other dealers.
“We couldn’t arrest our way out of the problem,” Quintin McShan, the former State Police captain tells me. Now retired, McShan still thinks about Chimayó. His frankness, all these years later, is surprising. “You have the investigation and then you have a massive pre-dawn raid, and then you have a press release, and then you go away,” he says. “A few years later, you rinse and repeat.”
Perhaps the most damning evidence of the raid’s failure is that it didn’t prevent drug-related deaths. In fact, in the aftermath, overdoses spiked almost immediately. Two people fatally OD’d just days later; as many as nine overdose victims landed at Española Hospital and survived.
Addicts possibly bought dope from someone new and got a different purity than expected, McShan theorized in a 1999 news story. “Either the person who cuts the dope is in jail, and the new guy can’t get it right, or the supplier has changed, and people don’t know what they are dealing with.”
‘A family tradition’
The bust changed nothing and everything, says Placedes “Prax” Martinez, who started selling heroin when he was a teenager, just like his brother José, the kid arrested at 16, and like his brother Jimmy, and like his uncle, brother-in-law and cousin. “It was a family tradition to sell,” Prax says, “because we’d seen it all our lives.”
The raid landed Prax in the state penitentiary in Santa Fe for seven months, interrupting the heroin habit he’d developed as a teen. But he started using again as soon as he got out. Not the arrest, not prison, not even the overdose deaths of three girlfriends could pry him loose from the addiction, he says. Nothing did, until his brother Jimmy, 31, overdosed in 2010, leaving behind two young daughters. “I gave him the drugs and he died that night,” Prax says. (It is a version of events that haunts him unnecessarily, in his brother José’s eyes: Jimmy died because he fell off a ladder and had a brain bleed, not because of drugs, José says.)
In the aftermath of Jimmy’s death, Prax completed a six-month rehab stint, became a certified nursing assistant and worked in a nursing home for a time. He later got a job as a cook at the Rancho de Chimayó, a restaurant where actress Elizabeth Taylor once dined. Now 51 — and clean for more than 10 years — he is upbeat and grateful, filled with pride about his work.
On the rare day off, he goes to the mountains for loads of firewood, or cures deer and bison meat the old way, meticulously hanging filets from the ceiling of a building near his single-wide. Making carne seca, oddly, is an act of penance: He gives it away to friends, family and local kids. The hobby helps him keep his mind off the past. “The other day, I counted all of my relatives that died of overdoses. It was 18 people that passed away in our family,” Prax tells me.
After his brother’s death, he wrote to Janet Reno and asked if he could buy back Jimmy’s land, which had been confiscated by the U.S. Marshals. The property, he explained, was passed down by his grandmother, Onofre, a woman of Indigenous descent, and he wanted to give it to Jimmy’s daughters. Reno granted the request for $15,000.
I meet his brother José a few days later, in the early morning, just before he feeds his chickens. José tells me he’s been clean for many years from his addiction to methadone. News reporters made his life miserable after the raid, he adds, not unkindly. “They made us look like we were the scum of the earth.”
“I haven’t been incarcerated since then. I did my time. I finished my parole. I moved on with my life” — becoming a carpenter, joining a union, raising a family. “I don’t even miss church on Sundays.”
But the past hangs over him. “You’re marked forever,” José says.
Erasing shame is key to breaking the cycle of addiction, drug prevention specialists tell me. They include artist Shawna Lee Chavez, a program evaluator for the National Latino Behavioral Health Association, who watched her mother, Edith, travel a common path to addiction: Prescribed pain medication after surgery, she became addicted to pills, then to heroin. Chavez now works on a program to build resilience in youths and adults. “People talk about addicts like they’re scum,” she says. “But an addict has a mom, grandma, sisters, brothers, nephews, nieces that love them. They’re not scum.”
Barrios Unidos Chimayó, a nonprofit that works with Chavez and community coalitions, offers support groups to help rebuild a sense of querencia — love of one’s land and culture. (The adage “tierra o muerte” — land or death — has long been espoused in northern New Mexico.)
The land is the focus of Miguel Moreno, a recovering heroin addict, and his best friend, Marcos Vigil, who founded a hemp farm, Chimayó Hemp Enterprises, which hires people recovering from addiction.
Vigil gives me a recent tour of the farm, which sits just north of the Barela compound — ground zero for the bust. Dealers sold drugs here out of mobile homes, all torn down after the raid. We cross the Río Santa Cruz into the property, where healing plants grow among old tires, a busted alarm clock and a pair of children’s tennis shoes.
The U.S. Marshals seized these seven acres through its asset forfeiture program. And like everything related to the bust, the loss was divisive: The land was part of the original Santa Cruz land grant of 1695, established for Indigenous and Hispano communities along New Spain’s northern frontier. Its forfeiture echoed a long history of colonization and dispossession in the region that goes back hundreds of years.
Vigil ushers me through the acreage, pointing out a robin’s egg blue fender that’s jutting from the riverbank where it had once been fortified with hunks of metal. In the early 2000s, he and other members of the Chimayó Youth Conservation Corps hauled away most of the detritus. But this piece somehow remained, swallowed by overgrowth and age-old remedios for ailments of all kinds — stomach aches, ear infections, pain, abscesses and anxiety.
“This went from a place that poisoned the valley to a place that could potentially heal,” Vigil tells me. But now, it was abandoned and, like the memory of the bust, only partially scarred over.
A 1999 raid in Chimayo was supposed to stamp out heroin use. Addiction grew instead.
It’s almost a cliché to say the war on drugs has been an abysmal failure. “It was not designed to be helpful or compassionate or even solutions-based,” said Emily Kaltenbach, senior director of criminal legal and policing reform at the Drug Policy Alliance. “From the beginning, it was a war on class and race.” Drug arrests in America are universally credited with creating mass incarceration for poor people of color. From 1980 to 2019, the number of Americans jailed for drug offenses soared from 40,900 to 430,926 and cost an estimated $1 trillion.
Close to 80 percent of federal and 60 percent of state prisoners who are incarcerated for drug offenses are Black or Latino, the vast majority of them for nonviolent crimes like possession or small-time dealing to support their habit.
In the backdrop, New Mexico, like other places, suffers from a perennial lack of quality treatment programs. A 2018 study found that 134,378 people in the state — including 863 people in Rio Arriba County — needed substance-abuse treatment and didn’t get it.
Meanwhile, the marketplace for drugs — both legal and illegal — continues to flourish in cities, rural areas and suburbs alike, shapeshifting to meet demand. “Criminalization doesn’t change behavior or get to the root of why people are selling or using drugs in the first place,” Kaltenbach said.
Some people in the Chimayó bust say they weren’t even drug dealers. Corpentino Vigil, 56, said he’d never even used drugs until he was behind bars. (Illicit drugs are common in many lockups.) He’d pleaded guilty to dealing cocaine, despite being innocent of the charges, Vigil said shortly before his death in September, of an undisclosed illness. He cycled in and out of the criminal justice system for the next two decades. Before the bust, he’d been a custodian at Chimayó Elementary School, a school bus driver and a boys basketball coach. Afterward, he found it impossible to get back on his feet. “Ever since then, I’ve been in trouble,” he said.
Chimayó has been in trouble, too. It sought help for its addiction problem all those years ago, and in return it received armed interference and a reputation as “the poster child” for the rural war on drugs, as Lauren Reichelt, director of Rio Arriba County’s Health and Human Services Department, put it. Heroin was cast as a lone villain — a solitary killer on the loose. In truth, most fatal overdoses occurred because people were mixing multiple substances, such as heroin, alcohol, prescription opioids and benzos like Valium. Reichelt, who explored overdose data for a 2002 study, said that from 1991 to 2001, not a single accidental overdose death involved the presence of only one drug. Similar studies around the nation link the majority of overdose deaths to a combination of substances, both illegal and legal.
“We didn’t have a heroin problem,” Reichelt said. “We had an addiction problem. And the DOJ was completely overlooking the most easily accessible culprits — alcohol and pharmaceutical companies.”
In fact, the late ’90s saw several area doctors lose their licenses because of overprescribing. (One was found to have prescribed 17,000 Percocets and 10,000 Valium pills to a single patient.) The loss of these “pill mills” created a complicated landscape of desperation just as black tar heroin was making its way to Northern New Mexico. Illicit drug use soared when access to legal drugs was cut off.
Reichelt recalled testifying at Sen. Pete Domenici’s 1999 Senate hearing in Española, a pivotal event in the lead-up to the bust. Before the hearing, an aide from Domenici’s office visited her and sternly told her not to discuss anything but heroin, she said. “It was like a scene out of Dr. Strangelove.” One speaker at the hearing beseeched Domenici not to allow the war on drugs to become “a war on our relatives.” But in the end, that’s what happened.