History > 2009 > USA > Drugs (I)
War Without Borders
How U.S. Became Stage
for Mexican Drug Feud
December 9, 2009
The New York Times
By SOLOMON MOORE
CHULA VISTA, Calif. — Eduardo Tostado was a prosperous man whose businesses
and pleasures straddled the coastal border. He owned a big house and a used-car
lot in the San Diego suburbs, and a seafood restaurant in Tijuana.
He was also part of the border underworld, the authorities say — a high-ranking
member of the Mexican drug cartel driving much of the United States’ illegal
marijuana trade and the cascade of violence in a 40-year drug war. Some
evenings, Mr. Tostado drank tequila at the Baby Rock club in Tijuana or sipped
Scotch at the Airport Lounge in San Diego. He socialized mainly with men he knew
well and women he knew not at all.
His wife, Ivette Rubio, was aware of this, and they were having problems in
their marriage. So when Mr. Tostado called her in June 2007 to say he had been
kidnapped and needed her to sell their house to pay a ransom, she did not
“You got drunk,” she said, “and you went out, and you didn’t come to sleep in
Click, the phone went dead.
Mr. Tostado was in the hands of Jorge Rojas-López, a former member of the
cartel, the Arellano Félix organization, who had turned on it. Based in the San
Diego suburbs, Mr. Rojas-López was running a renegade squad of kidnappers and
hit men, fighting for a piece of the marijuana market.
Across the border, the Mexican government, with $1.5 billion from the United
States, is battling its drug cartels, and the cartels are battling one other.
The Arellano organization has borne the brunt of these drug wars, and has
fragmented into smaller crews spinning across the border like shrapnel.
“We believe there has been a splintering of the A.F.O. and that it has lost the
power that they once wielded,” said Keith Slotter, the agent in charge of the
F.B.I.’s office in San Diego.
The illegal drug market has never been so unsettled, drug enforcement experts
say, with small elite killing squads like the one Mr. Rojas-López was running —
Mr. Slotter identified three in San Diego alone — operating on both sides of the
border. For three years, Mr. Rojas-López’s rogue squad, a mix of United States
citizens and Mexicans, used houses in tract developments as roving bases,
hunting cartel members and imprisoning their prey along bland residential
streets. They secured ransoms worth millions. Payment, however, did not
guarantee that the victims survived.
At stake were billions of dollars in profits from tons of smuggled marijuana,
and other drugs, and the precious control of Mexican border cities like Ciudad
Juárez; Nogales; and Tijuana. Those cities are thoroughfares to the world’s most
lucrative drug market: the United States.
The authorities in Kansas City, Mo., and Miami are also investigating the Mr.
Rojas-López’s squad for drug trafficking and killings in their cities.
Mr. Rojas-López and eight other members of the squad, called Los Palillos, are
now on trial in San Diego, charged with kidnapping 13 men and killing 9 from
2004 to 2007. Seven other co-defendants are fugitives. Since the investigation
began, three more fugitive squad members have been killed.
This account of Los Palillos in Tijuana and San Diego, based on more than 6,000
pages of court documents, testimony from 175 witnesses and co-defendants, and
interviews with law enforcement officials, offers a window into how Mexico’s
drug wars are playing out on American soil.
Mr. Rojas-López’s ambitions were fueled by more than just desire for a piece of
the marijuana trade. He also wanted revenge for the death of his brother,
Victor, a cartel enforcer, who was killed by the Arellanos organization in 2003
for insubordination. Mr. Rojas-López’s squad eluded the Arellanos cartel and law
enforcement officials in San Diego for three years. Investigators heard whispers
of a mutinous enforcement squad operating in the area but were unable to put the
Relatives of the kidnapping victims either avoided the police or withheld
crucial information about their loved ones. Instead, they quietly sold assets on
both sides of the border, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in a matter
Some victims were released unharmed. Others were smothered with masking tape,
shot in the stomach or pulverized with a police battering ram and dumped on a
suburban street. Or they were boiled down in acid and never seen again, a
technique known in Mexico as “pozole,” or Mexican stew.
Mr. Tostado, the kidnapped businessman with the big house here, and his wife
were among the pawns in this underworld, with Mr. Rojas-López demanding $2
million from Ms. Rubio for her husband’s life. The next call she received that
day was not from her husband.
She did not recognize the voice that said, “Hey, you want me to send your
husband in pieces or what?”
Call to Police Pays Off
At the time of his abduction, Mr. Tostado, a legal resident of both the United
States and Mexico, was helping the Arellanos cartel “pass tons of marijuana”
across the United States border, according to the federal agents and José
Olivera-Beritan, one of the nine suspected members of Los Palillos who is on
trial in San Diego Superior Court for murder and kidnapping. “He knew in advance
which trucks will be searched,” Mr. Olivera-Beritan said of Mr. Tostado in a
jailhouse interview. “He told us he was giving cops money under the table.”
Mr. Tostado has offered contradictory statements to agents regarding his cartel
His wife, Ms. Rubio, took a risk that night in June 2007 by calling the police.
Investigators say that it made the difference between Mr. Tostado’s survival and
the stories of less-fortunate kidnapping victims.
The event that led to the renegade squad occurred in 2003, when Victor
Rojas-López crossed the cartel.
One evening at Zool, a nightclub in Tijuana, members of his enforcement squad
got in a fight with members of another Arellano squad over a woman. A member of
Victor Rojas-López’s team pushed a gun into the face of a man who happened to be
the brother-in-law of the cartel leader, according to grand jury testimony.
The bosses ordered Victor Rojas-López to kill the underling. He refused and was
shot to death.
His younger brother, Jorge, then took over the squad, called it Los Palillos —
“the toothpicks,” after Victor, who was skinny but tough — and fled to San
Mark Amador, a San Diego County deputy district attorney who is the lead
prosecutor against Los Palillos, said that much of the evidence about what
happened next came from an insider, Guillermo Moreno, an American citizen and
the member of Los Palillos who had pulled the gun at Zool.
“He is the witness that pulls all the pieces together,” Mr. Amador said. Mr.
Moreno, who was arrested after Mr. Tostado’s kidnapping, ultimately led
investigators to rental houses around San Diego used by Los Palillos. In a deal
with prosecutors, he agreed to a minimum 25-year prison sentence, rather than
life. At some houses, forensic investigators found DNA from victims.
When members of Los Palillos first arrived in San Diego, they lived quietly off
earlier spoils. Then they went back to the work they knew best: killing and drug
The first corpses were found on Aug. 15, 2004, decomposing in a Dodge minivan.
The police said the bodies belonged to three drug smugglers who had crossed the
border to do a deal with the squad members.
The squad used safe houses with attached garages so they could move drugs or
bodies in and out without being seen, Mr. Moreno, the witness, said. In many
neighborhoods, the real estate bubble created a constant churn of new faces, so
it was easy to go undetected.
The three smugglers expected to drop off several hundred thousand dollars’ worth
of marijuana, sleep over and leave for Mexico in the morning. Instead, Mr.
Moreno said, the squad waited for the men to fall asleep, then shot one of them
in the stomach.
“Someone said, ‘Quit crying, you,’ ” Mr. Moreno told the grand jury. The man
bled to death.
The other two smugglers were suffocated. Mr. Rojas-López is accused of stealing
their marijuana and ordering Mr. Moreno to dump the bodies.
The Arellanos cartel, meanwhile, ordered a former Baja California police officer
named Ricardo Escobar Luna, 31, who was working for the cartel, to hunt down Los
Palillos in San Diego.
But members of the squad learned that Mr. Escobar was after them and abducted
him from his home in Bonita, Calif., according to testimony from Mr. Moreno. The
kidnappers disguised themselves as police officers and drove up in a BMW with
Mr. Escobar’s wife called the police but never mentioned that her husband worked
for the Arellanos cartel, said Steve Duncan, an investigator for the California
Department of Justice.
Testifying before the grand jury, Mr. Moreno described how he had overheard a
discussion among squad members before the kidnapping: “Well, he’s here to kill
us; we might as well kill him.”
On Aug. 20, 2005, Mr. Rojas-López took a police battering ram into the bedroom
where Mr. Escobar, the former police officer, was tied up, according to
testimony by Mr. Moreno.
Meanwhile, Mr. Moreno went outside to water the lawn and keep an eye on the
neighbors, he said. When he went back inside, he saw blood on the walls.
Victor Escobar, the former officer’s brother, told investigators that he had
paid the squad $600,000 for his freedom, but he never had much hope. “Yeah, I
knew they’d kill my brother,” he said. “But what else could I do?”
By September 2005, the police were beginning to understand that the killings
around San Diego were related, but they still did not know how. The case began
to unfold when two squad members with automatic rifles and pistols bungled the
kidnapping of an Arellanos cartel trafficker in a cul-de-sac in Chula Vista, in
A police cruiser chased the gunmen to a strip mall parking lot and was barraged
The gunmen were caught later that day and eventually convicted for attempted
kidnapping and the attempted murder of a police officer.
Within a few years, Los Palillos had become a minicartel with a drug trafficking
network that snaked through the Mexican cities of Ensenada and Tijuana, San
Diego and on to Missouri and Florida, according to federal agents.
Two Cuban nationals ran Los Palillos operations in Kansas City, Mo., Mr. Moreno,
the witness, told federal officials.
In September 2006, a woman in the small farming community of Jameson, about 50
miles north of Kansas City, heard gun shots and then found two bodies near a
barn. Deputies discovered a 47,000-square-foot marijuana garden behind rows of
corn stalks. Members of Los Palillos were arrested on suspicion of killing local
rivals, the authorities said.
By 2007, the authorities said, the renegade squad had made millions of dollars.
Mr. Rojas-López wore Rolex watches. Photographs on MySpace showed his squad
members hoisting drinks at trendy San Diego bars.
In May 2007, two more drug smugglers, both 33, were kidnapped, and they were
never seen again. Mr. Moreno told federal agents that their bodies had been
dissolved in a vat of acid.
Beer, Soccer and Arrests
Before he was kidnapped, Mr. Tostado was worried. A man had left an extortion
note at the front door of his home, recorded by his security camera. Armed with
a picture of the man, Mr. Tostado drove down to Tijuana to find some answers.
Mr. Tostado, an avid off-road racer, who admitted in court that he had
socialized with members of the Mexican underworld and had accepted a $200,000
race car from the Arellano family, learned that the man in the photo was a
member of Los Palillos.
A few weeks later, an acquaintance introduced Mr. Tostado to a Tijuana woman
named Nancy. On June 8, Nancy invited Mr. Tostado to her home in Chula Vista.
Mr. Tostado walked in carrying bottles of Cognac and whiskey. Hands grabbed him
from behind in the darkened room. Someone fired a Taser, immobilizing him.
Mr. Tostado was held for eight days while Los Palillos negotiated by phone with
his wife. He said that he drank beers with his abductors, who watched soccer on
television and smoked marijuana.
Occasionally, Mr. Rojas-López would vent angrily about the Arellanos cartel.
“They have killed my family and my brother,” he told him. “I had to do
something, and I have the nerve to do it over here.”
By June 16, Mr. Rojas-López had agreed to accept $193,000 in cash. Wiretapped
calls recorded the kidnappers directing the dropping off of the ransom money.
On June 16, 2007, federal agents arrested the squad leaders, Mr. Rojas-López and
Juan Estrada-Gonzalez, the second-in-charge, after they dropped the money off at
a motel. Another team of agents stormed the house where Mr. Tostado was being
held and freed him.
Later that day, as Mr. Tostado recounted his experience to federal agents, he
pledged to leave the underworld behind.
“I think I need to start over again,” he said. “I’m reborn right now.”
Mr. Tostado is keeping a low profile these days. He sold his house in Chula
Vista and no longer races the off-road circuits in Mexico.
He sold his restaurant in Tijuana, too, after someone left three barrels in
front of it in 2008. They were full of bones and acid.
How U.S. Became Stage
for Mexican Drug Feud, NYT, 9.12.2009,
Scientist at Work: A. Thomas Mclellan
Addiction on 2 Fronts: Work and Home
December 8, 2009
The New York Times
By SARAH KERSHAW
WASHINGTON — His son had been dead from an overdose only three months when A.
Thomas McLellan, among the nation’s leading researchers on addiction, got a call
from the office of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Would he accept the
nomination to be the government’s No. 2 drug-control official?
Dr. McLellan, 61, makes no secret of his cynicism about government — “I hate
Washington,” as he put it in an interview — and he had no intention of leaving
his job as a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania School of
Medicine and scientific director of the Treatment Research Institute in
But the loss of his younger son, who overdosed on anti-anxiety medication and
Scotch last year at age 30 while his older son was in residential treatment for
alcoholism and cocaine addiction, changed his perspective.
“That’s why I took this job,” said Dr. McLellan, who was sworn in as the deputy
director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in August. “I thought it
was some kind of sign, you know. I would never have done it. I loved all the
people I’ve worked with, I loved my life. But I thought maybe there’s a way
where what I know plus what I feel could make a difference.”
Married to a recovering cocaine addict, Dr. McLellan has been engulfed by
addiction in life and work. His own family has been a personal battleground for
one of the country’s most complex and entrenched problems, while as an expert he
has been a leading voice for the idea that addiction is a chronic illness and
not a moral issue.
This view squares with that of his boss, R. Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle
police chief who declared on taking office as drug czar in May that President
Obama’s administration would no longer use the term “war on drugs” — and that
the term implied the government was waging a battle against its citizens.
Instead, the two men say the government needs to change its drug-control
strategy, redirecting some of the resources into prevention and treatment and
away from law enforcement and antitrafficking efforts, which consumed 75 percent
to 90 percent of the budget during the Bush administration.
Dr. McLellan said that of the 25 million substance abusers he estimated were in
this country, only about 2 million were receiving treatment. He and Mr.
Kerlikowske want to triple that number, partly by spending more money and partly
through other tactics, like integrating addiction treatment into the primary
health care system.
Many veterans of the long and frustrating fight against addiction say it is
about time. “This is an extraordinary moment of opportunity,” said Dr. Nora D.
Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and one of the
colleagues and friends who helped persuade Dr. McLellan to take the job.
Still, even Dr. McLellan’s most ardent supporters say the challenges are
formidable. The federal drug-control office can do only so much, and the Obama
administration decided the drug czar would no longer be a cabinet-level
position. State and local governments, law enforcement agencies, the health care
system and schools are all big players. And taxpayers tend to have little
sympathy for addicts or for treatment programs with track records that are mixed
“I can tell a state legislator that if you would only provide treatment for
these guys, we’d have the greatest reduction in crime,” said Joseph A. Califano
Jr., chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at
Columbia University. “But those constituents want computers in the schools,
better roads, better sewage systems.”
Mr. Califano, who was been involved with government efforts to combat the drug
problem since the days of President Lyndon B. Johnson, said that he had great
admiration for the new leaders of the drug-control office but that “you need a
presidential commitment here.”
“I think if Obama gave these two guys the spark, they would know how to turn
into a fire,” he said.
The office is preparing its drug policy strategy, to be released in February
along with Mr. Obama’s budget. “We are going to get the money to do this,” Dr.
McLellan insisted. “I can’t tell you the amount or where it’s coming from, but
we’re going to get it.”
The drug czar himself, who has made passing reference to his adult stepson’s
struggles with drugs but does not discuss it openly, was more cautious, as he
tends to be.
“I think for some folks, radical change will be their only measure of success,”
Mr. Kerlikowske said in an interview. “I don’t think we’ll see that. I think
we’ll make a lot of progress, we’ll slow the freighter down and start turning it
in the direction of the more balanced view.”
The two make an interesting pair — the former police chief who has plenty of
experience parsing words with reporters, and the plainspoken, quirky and
mustachioed psychologist who says “ain’t” and “yeah,” and whose candor can make
Washington insiders nervous.
Dr. McLellan, who has written or collaborated on more than 400 papers on
addiction, is well known among his colleagues and friends for both his passion
for the subject and his bluntness.
In a recent interview in his office here — still sparsely decorated except for a
photocopied picture of his family, including his surviving son and two young
grandsons (or “grand felons,” as he called them) — Dr. McLellan put his feet up
on the coffee table and declared, “I hate this job.”
“This is a job that needs scientific background,” he went on. “But if you come
to it with the kind of desires to turn everything into a scientific experiment,
you will have your poor little heart broken.”
Despite Mr. Kerlikowske’s insistence that putting more resources into prevention
and treatment does not mean the government is going soft on crime, such policies
are bound to be controversial. Conservatives point out, for example, that drug
treatment and detoxification programs have relapse and dropout rates as high as
80 percent or 90 percent.
“I’m not sure the federal government has an obligation to try to rehabilitate
addicts,” said Heather Mac Donald, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a
conservative policy research group. “Government has an obligation to provide
safe streets to people, and policing has an extremely effective track record in
places in like New York City and Los Angeles.”
Dr. McLellan grew up in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and while his family was “riddled”
with addiction, he says he wound up in the field almost by accident. He said
that while he drank, he was “constitutionally unfit to be an alcoholic,” and
therefore did not have what he and many others consider to be a genetic disease.
He earned his doctorate in experimental psychology, with a focus on animal
learning, from Bryn Mawr College in 1976.
“You’ve undoubtedly — I think almost every American has read my Ph.D. thesis by
now,” he said. “ ‘Negative Autoshaping in the Rat, Cockroach, Pigeon and
Crayfish.’ And armed with this kind of knowledge and obvious preparation for the
business world, I was shocked to find that there weren’t many jobs available.”
So he went to the veterans’ hospital in Coatesville, Pa., to see what was
available. He was offered a job as a technician to evaluate the effectiveness of
one of the nation’s first drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, and that led
him and a team of researchers to develop the Addiction Severity Index, now
established as a standard assessment tool for drug and alcohol abuse.
In recent years, Dr. McLellan has focused on the lack of addiction screening in
primary health care settings like doctors’ offices and emergency rooms. For
example, he said, just as with hypertension or diabetes, there is a concrete way
to measure whether someone has an alcohol problem.
The measuring stick is known as “3-14” — so if someone is having 3 or more
drinks a day, or 14 per week, that should raise a red flag, and physicians
should be much better equipped to intervene and offer treatment options if there
is a problem. Ideally, Dr. McLellan said, that treatment would be available in
the medical system itself, not segregated in rehabilitation and detox programs,
with their high failure rates.
He said another goal was to get a better handle on measuring the use of drugs
and alcohol by those under 21, the time of highest risk for the onset of
addiction. His younger son was in eighth grade when he began to struggle with
addiction, and by then Dr. McLellan was a prominent researcher in the field.
“If it has to happen, better it happens to me, I’m an expert, right?” Dr.
McLellan said. “I didn’t know what to do and none of my buddies knew what to do,
and let me tell you they were experts. So I said, ‘What the hell are we doing?’
That prompted him to start the Treatment Research Institute to evaluate
addiction treatment. But both of his sons continued to struggle with addiction.
Dr. Volkow, of the national drug-abuse institute, said the death of the younger
son “epitomized how unprotected people who are addicted to drugs are, even with
that father.” Of Dr. McLellan, she added, “He’s an absolute true warrior in the
best sense of the word.”
The older son is doing well now, and the two enjoy working together to restore
houses and sell them. “Maybe when I get out of here, I’ll do more of that,” Dr.
Then he quickly added, “There’s a lot of need for drug-free housing.”
An earlier version of this article misstated where Dr. McLellan earned his
Addiction on 2 Fronts:
Work and Home, NYT, 8.12.2009,
War Without Borders
In Heartland Death, Traces of Heroin’s Spread
May 31, 2009
The New York Times
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
GROVE CITY, Ohio — For five hours, Dana Smith huddled stunned and bewildered
in her suburban living room while the body of her son Arthur Eisel IV, 31, lay
slumped in an upstairs bathroom, next to a hypodermic needle.
Family and friends streamed in. Detectives scurried about. For Mrs. Smith, the
cold realization set in that her oldest son Artie — quiet, shy, car enthusiast,
football and softball fanatic — was dead of a heroin overdose.
The death was the end of a particular horror for Mrs. Smith, whose two other
children, Mr. Eisel’s younger brothers, also fell into heroin addiction “like
dominoes,” she said, and still struggle with it.
To the federal government, which prosecuted the heroin dealers for Mr. Eisel’s
death, it was a stark illustration of how Mexican drug cartels have pushed
heroin sales beyond major cities into America’s suburban and rural byways, some
of which had seen little heroin before.
In Ohio, for instance, heroin-related deaths spread into 18 new counties from
2004 to 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available. Their numbers
rose to 546 in that period, from 376 for 2000 to 2003.
Federal officials now consider the cartels the greatest organized crime threat
to the United States. Officials say the groups are taking over heroin
distribution from Colombians and Dominicans and making new inroads across the
country, pushing a powerful form of heroin grown and processed in Mexico known
as “black tar” for its dark color and sticky texture.
Their operations often piggyback on a growing and struggling Mexican immigrant
population. In a case that provides a window into how this works, two illegal
immigrant dealers pleaded guilty to manslaughter last year in Mr. Eisel’s death,
in a rare federal manslaughter prosecution from a drug overdose.
Investigators determined that the two immigrants, Jose Manuel Cazeras-Contreras,
30, and Victor Delgadillo Parra, 23, began distributing heroin when they were
unable to find jobs. Mr. Parra, in an interview from prison, where he was
sentenced to spend 16 ½ years, said he was afraid of being arrested at first,
but took the job to support his wife and son, as well as relatives in Mexico.
“I was living a hard life here in the United States,” Mr. Parra said. “And I
didn’t have any other job I was going to go to.”
Another man in the drug ring, who was not directly connected to the death and
therefore not charged with manslaughter, was recruited off the streets of Mexico
and smuggled into the country expressly to peddle drugs in Ohio, the government
Fat on profits made largely in the United States, drug traffickers in Mexico are
engaged there in a bloody war among themselves and with the government, which
began a crackdown on them three years ago. Since then the violence, including
assaults on the police and the army, has left more than 10,000 people dead.
But on this side of the border, the traffickers continue to expand their reach.
Drug Enforcement Administration officials say that Ohio is of particular concern
because of the crisscrossing network of freeways here that make it well suited
as a transshipment point. Anthony C. Marotta, who heads the agency’s Columbus
office, said heroin tied to the Columbus-area dealers had been cropping up in
nearby states like Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia and as far away as the
The case of Arthur Eisel and the men arrested for selling him heroin shows how
the traffickers pushed their product and how in Mr. Eisel, already addicted to
expensive pain killers because of a back injury, they found a ready customer for
heroin, which was cheaper.
Investigators say that Arthur Eisel was not alone in switching from a
prescription painkiller to heroin. It gives a similar, euphoric high at a
fraction of the cost, $10 to $20 for a “balloon” — one dose, usually a gram or
less — as opposed to upwards of $60 for a typical prescription pill dose on the
The traffickers found a ripe market in Grove City, a suburb of Columbus, as they
have elsewhere in the nation. Drug seizures ebb and flow over the years, but the
amount of heroin confiscated nationwide has been arcing up since the mid-90s,
going from 370 kilograms in 1998 nationwide to about 600 kilograms — roughly
$150 million worth of heroin — last year, though officials believe it is a small
fraction of what is available on the street.
The share of heroin-related prosecutions among federal drug cases in this region
has also been climbing, reaching 15 percent of cases last year compared with 4
percent a decade ago.
The numbers here are small in comparison with other populous states like New
York, California or Texas, which have always been centers of drug use. But the
growth here has prompted much soul-searching.
Mr. Marotta said he had been alarmed recently to see dealing in the parking lot
of a supermarket in Dublin, a quiet, upscale suburb of Columbus, where he was
Paul Coleman, the director of Maryhaven, the largest rehabilitation center in
the region, said the percentage of patients reporting opiates, principally
heroin, as their preferred drug — whether it is smoked, inhaled or injected —
grew to 68 percent last year from 38 percent in 2002.
Mr. Coleman said he believed that the trend reflected an increased supply of
Mike G., who is undergoing treatment at Maryhaven and asked that his last name
be withheld for fear enemies on the street would find him there, said, “In some
places it is like going to pick up beer.”
A Fatal Link
The group linked to the Mexican cartel that sold Arthur Eisel his fatal dose was
just one of at least 10 trafficking organizations, known by the authorities as
cells, operating in central Ohio, said Tim Reagan, a D.E.A. agent who
investigated the case as part of the Southwest Border Task Force, a group of
Ohio law enforcement officials focused on drugs coming from Mexico.
Each cell consists of a handful of people who distribute the drug after it is
smuggled across the Southwest border, 1,500 miles away. Many cell members, like
Mr. Parra and Mr. Contreras, have roots in Nayarit, a state on the Pacific Coast
Mexican authorities say that growers in Nayarit are using a highly productive
form of the poppy from Colombia and processing the heroin in laboratories
scattered around Tepic, Nayarit’s capital, despite efforts to kill the plants
The cells take orders over disposable mobile phones, making it hard for the
police to trace them or their calls. They use a system of “dispatchers” and
“runners” to take orders and deliver the drug. Members of the cells typically
stay in an area for only four or five months before replacements arrive. The
drugs are sold at rendezvous points, usually in shopping center parking lots, in
an effort to blend in with the bustle.
The men convicted in the Eisel case told the authorities similar stories. Mr.
Contreras, the dispatcher in the case, told federal authorities that he had
crossed the border illegally and lived in Oregon for several years before moving
to Columbus in 2007 on the promise of a job as an auto mechanic. But that job
never materialized. In a letter to The New York Times, he said he had worked a
variety of other jobs but had hit an unemployment streak that left him without a
car or a house for his wife and two young children.
Desperate for work, he said he found an acquaintance in Columbus who promised
him easy money for distributing heroin.
“Since I spoke English and Spanish, they proposed that I answer the phone only,”
Mr. Contreras wrote. “I didn’t touch the drug or see it. I was only answering
the phone. I was with them for three months, and that was when they caught me.”
He said he never imagined that anyone could die from the heroin, “since I have
used the drug and nothing ever happened to me.”
Mr. Parra said he illegally crossed the border in 2005 and settled in
California, working in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant for several months.
When that work and other jobs dried up, friends suggested he come to Ohio for
work. But when he arrived, Mr. Parra said, he learned that the work would be
helping to distribute heroin.
At turns repentant and defiant, Mr. Parra said he felt sorry for the family of
Mr. Eisel but did not fully accept responsibility for his death and wondered
aloud if the government was making an example of him.
“It was never my intention for someone to die,” Mr. Parra said, “but neither did
I put a syringe or something in somebody so that they could inject the drug,”
adding, “I am serving as an example” to discourage other dealers.
Jose Garcia Morales, a third man who was arrested in the case but was not
prosecuted for the death of Mr. Eisel, was recruited off the streets of
Nayarit’s capital, according to a memorandum his lawyer prepared for the court
in urging a lenient sentence.
The document describes how the ring arranged for the payment of a “coyote,” or
human smuggler, to bring Mr. Morales across the border. Then, he piled into the
back of a Ryder truck, was driven to Columbus and, over a two-week training
period, was taught to deliver heroin by other drug traffickers already
“Mr. Morales was promised that he would make a lot of money,” the document said.
“In reality, when he was paid, if it all, he generally received between $400 and
$500 a week, a place to sleep, and occasionally some food. As expected, Mr.
Morales sent much of the money he earned back to his family in Mexico.”
Connecting the distribution rings to the cartel leadership in Mexico has proved
difficult. Those arrested here typically say they fear for the safety of their
families in Mexico if word gets back that they have been too cooperative.
“If they are caught, they are terrified what will happen to their families, and
for good reason,” said David M. DeVillers, a federal prosecutor here who has
handled several drug cases. “They want to do the prison time.”
The authorities say that local arrests rarely make a difference. New dealers pop
up within weeks.
“It’s like sweeping sunshine off the roof,” Mr. Marotta of the D.E.A. said.
Standing before a federal judge last summer as he faced the prospect of 20 years
in prison on manslaughter charges in Mr. Eisel’s death, Mr. Contreras begged for
“I truly did not intend to do any damage to their family,” said Mr. Contreras,
30, before the judge handed down a 15-year sentence. “I have two children, and I
would not like something like this to happen to my sons.”
Dana Smith listened, horrified. At home, her two younger sons were still
struggling with addiction.
Arthur had been, in her eyes, a typical suburban child, shy around girls, a
devotee of the radio host Howard Stern, a member of a local softball league,
popular with the children of friends.
He eventually found work as a bank clerk and rented an apartment with one of his
brothers, Robby. Robby Eisel, who is undergoing treatment at a residential
center in Columbus, said the progression from prescription medicine to heroin
was easy “because the heroin is everywhere around here.”
When Arthur Eisel injured his back in a car accident in 2005, he started taking
prescription medication, Percocet and OxyContin, for chronic pain, under a
Robby Eisel said he had been taking similar medications after he broke his arm
on the job as a maintenance worker at a golf course. Soon, all three brothers
were acquiring OxyContin illegally and sharing it. When supplies dried up and
their dealer suggested heroin, they tried it and quickly developed an addiction.
Mrs. Smith said she struggled to comprehend what took hold of her sons. She
works as a clerk at a courthouse and had seen the regular parade of drug addicts
and offenders come through. But one day in 2007, she heard the names of two of
her boys, Arthur and Robby, announced in arraignment court. They had broken into
“It was devastating,” she said.
More horrors came. She would find needles in pillow cases, in coats, under
living room chairs. She watched her sons writhe in agony from head and bone pain
and diarrhea as they experienced withdrawal trying to beat the addiction at
Mrs. Smith said she sometimes feels pangs of guilt and wonders if she could have
done more to help Arthur break the addiction. She concedes that she gave him
food, a place to stay and sometimes even money when his stupor made clear what
he was up to.
“I was an enabler,” she said quietly. “I was his mother.”
At one point, she called a private rehabilitation facility in Florida, hoping to
get all of her sons in treatment. But she was told the facility did not accept
“Which one has it the worst?” she recalled a counselor there asking.
The question still gnaws at her.
“How do you choose which one of your children to save?” Mrs. Smith asks now. She
decided at the time that she could not choose and sent none of them to Florida.
Regret and Resolve
Arthur Eisel went through a revolving door of treatment centers in the Columbus
area in the months before his death. He would get free of the drug, seemingly
set on a positive path only to relapse and fall into it again. But, his family
said, he did not appear to be using heavily in the weeks before his death.
The night before he died, he and his brother Ryan paid their mother a visit,
watching television there until late in the evening.
At work the next morning, Mrs. Smith got the kind of call parents dread. She
remembers hearing Ryan say, “His lips are blue.” Mrs. Smith spent the next
months in a state of shock. She said she does not remember much.
As it turned out, investigators had already been trailing the ring that sold
Arthur his fatal dose. That work, in addition to confidential informants whose
testimony would have allowed investigators to trace Mr. Eisel’s dose to Mr.
Parra and Mr. Contreras, emboldened prosecutors to charge them with manslaughter
and other crimes.
Prosecutors asked Mrs. Smith to go to the sentencing hearings and make a
statement. She stood feet from the men accused of killing her son and listened
to their words of regret.
“Part of my heart goes out to their families,” she said in a recent interview.
“But something has got to be done to stop this.”
Antonio Betancourt contributed reporting from Mexico City.
In Heartland Death,
Traces of Heroin’s Spread, NYT, 31.5.2009,