In 1979, a young man fell into a job at the Denver Police Department. He was new in town, fresh from a broken engagement in his native Pueblo, Colorado.
Dennis Chavez never meant to be a cop. His family traced its roots back to a seventeenth-century Spanish conquistador. Four centuries later, Chavez’s father was a steelworker in Pueblo.
Chavez, a big guy, played football at the University of Colorado for a couple years in the 1970s before leaving the school. He worked construction. Then a friend recently hired on at Denver PD told him the work was fun and urged him to take the entrance test. Chavez passed it and within a few months was at the Denver Police Academy.
Early into his first year on patrol, however, a training officer told his friend that Chavez was failing, probably the dumbest in the new recruit class and almost certain to wash out before the year ended. That irked. Chavez put in extra time studying laws and the municipal code, exercising and adding new energy to his street work.
In time, his interest in sports channeled into power weight lifting. He cut his hair in a flattop, with lightning bolts cut into the sides and his badge number on the back of his head. Steroids were legal then. He would buy bodybuilding dope from a doctor who visited the gym where he lifted. Soon he was spending twelve hundred dollars a month on steroids and supplements. He was six feet four, 250 pounds, and muscles bulged from him as if his body were a squeezed balloon. Dennis Chavez was a ferocious cat back then, shaking hands with an iron grip, clubbing friends on the shoulders when he saw them. He arrived at every 911 call like a pit bull, pulling for action. When he barked, “How you doing?” at friends, it sounded like a cross between an interrogation and a command. Even cops tried to avoid him.
He was obsessed with his job, which he took to mean arresting bad guys. A lieutenant once criticized him for not writing enough tickets.
As training officer to new recruits, the lieutenant said, Chavez wasn’t showing them enough balance to his police work.
“That’s not what I do,” Chavez told the lieutenant. “I find felons.”
He spent his first years on the force learning from a cop named Robert Wallis. Wallis was the department’s version of a supercop. He made major arrests all the time. He and his partner were involved in more than a dozen shootings, which to Chavez meant that Wallis was always getting in the way of the worst bad guys. Wallis was a guy he wanted to emulate. Wallis taught him about prison tattoos, and recognizing the look of a guy on the lam in line at a downtown shelter. From Wallis, Chavez learned early on that most crime is connected to illegal drugs, so understanding that world was crucial to good police work.
Heroin particularly interested Chavez. Back then, Mexican American families controlled the trade in Denver. But as Chavez worked them and arrested them, he heard they were being supplied by men from a place in Mexico called Nayarit. The name meant nothing to Chavez, but for years it kept coming up. The Nayarits sold a substance he hadn’t seen before. Heroin in Denver up to then had been all light-brown powder. This Nayarit heroin, however, was dark and sticky and looked like Tootsie Rolls or rat feces. They called it black tar and Chavez heard stories they cut it with boiled-down Coca-Cola.
As the years passed, meanwhile, what Dennis Chavez realized he loved most about his job was the deduction of crime. It was the immersion in it, finding the thread of a criminal and his MO. Once, a serial rapist was striking across Denver. Chavez had taken the statement of the last victim, a high school girl, who, in tears, grabbed his hand and made him promise that he would catch the guy. Victims said the rapist held a Buck knife to them as he assaulted them. Chavez charted the rapist’s attacks—his times, dates, locations. He staked out the southeast Denver neighborhood where he thought the guy would hit next. One night he saw a man walking down an alley and just knew it was the guy. Then the man jaywalked. Chavez stopped him and arrested him for carrying a concealed Buck knife in his pants. Victims came to the station house that night and identified Chavez’s arrestee as their rapist.
A few years into the job, Dennis Chavez woke one morning unable to see, his heart pounding like an overheated piston. His girlfriend took him to the hospital. A doctor told him he was going to have a stroke if he didn’t let up.
“You can die young and good-looking, or years from now fat and happy,” the doctor said.
Dennis Chavez opted for the latter. He backed off the steroids and coffee, and stopped power lifting. He took up aikido and long rides into the Colorado mountains on his Harley. Later, he founded a club of officers who rode motorcycles and raised money for charities.
He mellowed. His police work changed, too. His affinity for sleuthing didn’t flag. But no longer the pit bull, he had to develop other skills. Among these was the cultivation of snitches and, with that, a personality that other people wanted to be around. Finding informants was not hard, really. He’d arrest a guy and tell him he could work off the case by setting up others. Eventually that could lead to cash payments to the informant. What was hard was managing the relation- ship, particularly when the informant went from working off his case to making a salary from it. The best snitches were the ones who stayed in it and would do anything for their handlers. These relationships required finesse and a soothing personality that let an informant know that Chavez liked him and would protect him. It meant going against the book from time to time—accepting Christmas presents, for example, and giving them in return.
Informants became particularly important when, in 1995, Dennis Chavez joined the narcotics unit of the Denver Police Department. He was bequeathed his first long-term informant by a sergeant leaving the unit. The sergeant introduced Chavez to a man immersed in Denver’s Mexican heroin underworld.
Chavez never had much connection to Mexico. His father had forbidden Spanish in the house so his children wouldn’t speak accented English. But Chavez could see the Denver drug world changing. Mexican American dealer families were going to prison, dying, moving away. Mexicans stepped into the void, and when that happened, Chavez began hearing about the state of Nayarit all the time. The heroin in Denver was all black tar now.
In the late 1980s, he saw guys from Nayarit walking around down- town selling heroin to anyone who’d walk up to them. He arrested many of them, and found Nayarit on a map, but it still didn’t mean much. He saw them move into cars and drive it around to customers. Mexicans were arrested at the bus station with backpacks and a kilo or two of the drug. But Chavez still had no sense for how this fit together, if it did at all.
Until one day, when his informant said to him, “You know they’re all from the same town, right?”
I met Dennis Chavez at a Mexican restaurant in north Denver, where he told me the story of how he began tracking the Nayarit heroin connection. He said he was intrigued by what the informant told him— that all that he was seeing related to heroin in Denver originated in one small town in Mexico. He prodded the man for more.
What Chavez had been seeing on the streets, the informant said—the dealers, the couriers with backpacks of heroin, the drivers with balloons of heroin—all looks very random and scattered, but it’s not. It’s all connected.
They’re all from a town called Xalisco. Ha-LEES-koh—he said, pronouncing the word. Don’t confuse it with a state in Mexico pronounced the same way, but spelled with a j. The state of Jalisco is one of Mexico’s largest and Guadalajara is its capital. This town, he said, spells its name with an x. The informant had never been there, but believed it to be a small place.
All these guys running around Denver selling black tar heroin are from this town of Xalisco, or a few small villages near there, the informant told Chavez. Their success is based on a system they’ve learned. It’s a system for selling heroin retail. Their system is a simple thing, really, and relies on cheap, illegal Mexican labor, just the way any fast-food joint does.
From then on, Chavez sat with the informant, at bars and in a truck outside the man’s house, as the informant talked on about these guys from Xalisco and their heroin retail system—which was unlike anything the informant had seen in the drug underworld.
Think of it like a fast-food franchise, the informant said, like a pizza delivery service. Each heroin cell or franchise has an owner in Xalisco, Nayarit, who supplies the cell with heroin. The owner doesn’t often come to the United States. He communicates only with the cell manager, who lives in Denver and runs the business for him.
Beneath the cell manager is a telephone operator, the informant said. The operator stays in an apartment all day and takes calls. The calls come from addicts, ordering their dope. Under the operator are several drivers, paid a weekly wage and given housing and food. Their job is to drive the city with their mouths full of little uninflated balloons of black tar heroin, twenty-five or thirty at a time in one mouth. They look like chipmunks. They have a bottle of water at the ready so if police pull them over, they swig the water and swallow the balloons. The balloons remain intact in the body and are eliminated in the driver’s waste. Apart from the balloons in their mouths, drivers keep another hundred hidden somewhere in the car.
The operator’s phone number is circulated among heroin addicts, who call with their orders. The operator’s job, the informant said, is to tell them where to meet the driver: some suburban shopping center parking lot—a McDonald’s, a Wendy’s, a CVS pharmacy. The operators relay the message to the driver, the informant said.
The driver swings by the parking lot and the addict pulls out to follow him, usually down side streets. Then the driver stops. The addict jumps into the driver’s car. There, in broken English and broken Spanish, a cross-cultural heroin deal is accomplished, with the driver spitting out the balloons the addict needs and taking his cash.
Drivers do this all day, the guy said. Business hours—eight a.m. to eight p.m. usually. A cell of drivers at first can quickly gross five thousand dollars a day; within a year, that cell can be clearing fifteen thousand dollars daily.
The system operates on certain principles, the informant said, and the Nayarit traffickers don’t violate them. The cells compete with each other, but competing drivers know each other from back home, so they’re never violent. They never carry guns. They work hard at blending in. They don’t party where they live. They drive sedans that are several years old. None of the workers use the drug. Drivers spend a few months in a city and then the bosses send them home or to a cell in another town. The cells switch cars about as often as they switch drivers. New drivers are coming up all the time, usually farm boys from Xalisco County. The cell owners like young drivers because they’re less likely to steal from them; the more experienced a driver becomes, the more likely he knows how to steal from the boss. The informant assumed there were thou- sands of these kids back in Nayarit aching to come north and drive some U.S. city with their mouths packed with heroin balloons.
To a degree unlike any other narcotics operation, he said, Xalisco cells run like small businesses. The cell owner pays each driver a salary— $1,200 a week was the going rate in Denver at the time. The cell owner holds each driver to exact expenses, demanding receipts for how much each spent for lunch, or for a hooker. Drivers are encouraged to offer special deals to addicts to drum up business: fifteen dollars per balloon or seven for a hundred dollars. A free balloon on Sunday to an addict who buys Monday through Saturday. Selling heroin a tenth of a gram at a time is their one and only, full-time, seven-days-a-week job, and that includes Christmas Day. Heroin addicts need their dope every day.
Cell profits were based on the markup inherent in retail. Their customers were strung-out, desperate junkies who couldn’t afford a half a kilo of heroin. Anyone looking for a large amount of heroin was probably a cop aiming for a case that would land the dealer in prison for years. Ask to buy a large quantity of dope, the informant said, and they’ll shut down their phones. You’ll never hear from them again. That really startled the informant. He knew of no other Mexican trafficking group that preferred to sell tiny quantities.
Moreover, the Xalisco cells never deal with African Americans. They don’t sell to black people; nor do they buy from blacks, who they fear will rob them. They sell almost exclusively to whites.
What the informant described, Chavaz could see, amounted to a major innovation in the U.S. drug underworld. These innovations had every bit the impact of those in the legitimate business world. When, for example, someone discovered that cocaine cooked with water and baking soda became rock hard, the smokable cocaine known as crack was born. Crack was a more effective delivery mechanism for cocaine— sending it straight to the brain.
The Xalisco traffickers’ innovation was literally a delivery mechanism as well. Guys from Xalisco had figured out that what white people— especially middle-class white kids—want most is service, convenience. They didn’t want to go to skid row or some seedy dope house to buy their drugs. Now they didn’t need to. The guys from Xalisco would deliver it to them.
So the system spread. By the mid-1990s, Chavez’s informant counted a dozen major metro areas in the western United States where cells from tiny Xalisco, Nayarit, operated. In Denver by then he could count eight or ten cells, each with three or four drivers, working daily.
As I listened to Chavez, it seemed to me that the guys from Xalisco were fired by the impulse that, in fact, moved so many Mexican immi- grants. Most Mexican immigrants spent years in the United States not melting in but imagining instead the day when they would go home for good. This was their American Dream: to return to Mexico better off than they had left it and show everyone back home that that’s how it was. They called home and sent money constantly. They were usually far more involved in, say, the digging of a new well in the rancho than in the workings of the school their children attended in the United States. They returned home for the village’s annual fiesta and spent money they couldn’t afford on barbecues, weddings, and quinceañeras. To that end, as they worked the toughest jobs in America, they assiduously built houses in the rancho back home that stood as monuments to their desire to return for good one day. These houses took a decade to finish. Immigrants added to their houses each time they returned. They invariably extended rebar from the top of the houses’ first floors. Rebar was a promise that as soon as he got the money together, the owner was adding a second story. Rods of rebar, standing at attention, became part of the skyline of literally thousands of Mexican immigrant villages and ranchos.
The finished houses of migrant Mexico often had wrought-iron gates, modern plumbing, and marble floors. These towns slowly improved as they emptied of people whose dream was to build their houses, too. Over the years, the towns became dreamlands, as empty as movie sets, where immigrants went briefly to relax at Christmas or during the annual fiesta, and imagine their lives as wealthy retirees back home again one day. The great irony was that work, mortgages, and U.S.-born children kept most migrants from ever returning to Mexico to live permanently in those houses they built with such sacrifice.
But the Xalisco heroin traffickers did it all the time. Their story was about immigration and what moves a poor Mexican to migrate as much as it was a tale of drug trafficking. Those Xalisco traffickers who didn’t end up in prison went back to live in those houses. They put down no roots in this country; they spent as little money in America as they could, in fact. Jamaicans, Russians, Italians, even other Mexican traffickers, all bought property and broadcasted their wealth in the United States. The Xalisco traffickers were the only immigrant narcotics mafia Chavez knew of that aimed to just go home, and with nary a shot fired.
Denver became a Xalisco hub as their operations expanded, and probably no cop in America learned more about them than Dennis Chavez. By the time I met him, hundreds of arrests and sweeping federal indictments had not stopped them. They had spread like a virus, quietly and unrecognized by many in law enforcement, who often mistook Xalisco franchises for isolated groups of small-time dealers.
“I call them the Xalisco Boys,” Chavez said. “They’re nationwide.”
Excerpted from Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. Copyright © 2015 by Bloomsbury Press. Reprinted by permission.