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Mexican heroin is killing more Americans

Alejandra S. Inzunza and José Luis Pardo| El Universal
12:23Tuesday 25 November 2014

Several addicts visit NY-Vocal every day, an organization that seeks to reduce the damages caused by heroin use. (Photo: LUIS CORTÉS / EL UNIVERSAL )

Mexican cartels have increased the supply of heroin in the United States, especially the Sinaloa cartel. In 2013, 3,665 Americans died from heroin abuse.

Acxel Barboza, New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, spent much of his life buying white envelopes in Harlem, north of Manhattan, for 10 dollars at one of the corners controlled by gangs like The Latin Kings or The Bloods, that operate throughout the United States. The envelopes contained a dose of heroin with a 60% purity. 

Five years later, Barboza is still in the corners of Harlem, but instead of buying heroin he distributes pamphlets, syringes, methadone and condoms to help addicts have a "responsible consumption". 

Since Barboza stopped using heroin he joined the New York Harm Reduction Educators, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting the health, safety and well-being of marginalized, low-income persons who use drugs. The logic of such groups is that drug use is a public health issue, so their mission is preventing drug users from dying from an overdose or diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. 

"Sometimes they take us for drug traffickers. They see us in the corners with syringes and they believe that we sell heroin, but we are just the opposite," says the man in his 30s. 

The worst epidemic 

New York is experiencing its worst heroin use epidemic since the 70's. Around 420 people died last year from an overdose and consumption grew 84% between 2010 and 2012. According to a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6.2 people per 100,000 inhabitants died from an overdose in New York City last year, the highest rate in the last decade. 

The number of deaths is also high throughout the United States, where Mexican cartels have increased the supply of heroin, especially the Sinaloa cartel. In 2013, 3,665 people died from heroin use, compared to 1,799 in 2012. 

Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, began working on the streets of New York in 1990 providing sterile syringes for addicts. 

Like many other New Yorkers, Clear knew several addicts who had AIDS or hepatitis C. "There were 200,000 consumers and half of them had HIV. Many people were dying and something had to change," he recalls. 

Consumption was very visible throughout the city back then, especially in communities like Bronx, Brooklyn or Harlem. You could see people smoking crack or using heroin and cocaine. Many of those drug users often end up sick, dead, in prison or secluded in psychiatric institutions. Many were also left homeless. 

Consumption in New York has become invisible compared to those years, even though it has not diminished. There are two theories to explain the phenomenon. 

One is technology: the increased use of mobile phones made home delivery possible. Cyrus Vance, District Attorney of New York County, said in April last year: "Residents of Manhattan today can get nearly everything delivered to their doorstep - from dinner to dry cleaning and even cocaine." 

The prosecutor made this statement after a two-year investigation that ended with 41 arrests. The detainees, that belonged to three gangs, sold cocaine at twice the market value in Manhattan. Their customers were students, housewives or Wall Street bankers. Prosecutors estimate that during the time that the police kept track of them they sold drugs worth US$1.2 million. 

The other theory is known in New York as "broken windows", which means that drug use is tolerated under two conditions: that there is no strife or violence and that it is not public in the tourist areas of New York. 

"If you ask me: what is the community where most drugs are consumed I would say Wall Street," says Matt Curtis, Policy Director at NY-Vocal, another organization dedicated to harm reduction among drug users. 

Heroin user profile 

According to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the profile of heroin users has changed in the last decade. Now they are younger and belong to the middle and upper classes compared to the previous stereotype of heroin users: poor, black and homeless. Consumption has increased among people aged 15 to 34, although most deaths are between 35 and 54. 

The epidemic has reached suburbs like Staten Island, one of the most affected parts of the city, where 36 people died from heroin use in 2012 and 37 more for abusing prescription pills like oxycodone. Experts say that consumption has changed in this area. Many young people addicted to opioids began using heroin because it is cheaper and more powerful. 

When authorities closed clandestine clinics where these pills were prescribed, local traffickers started selling heroin for up to five dollars. Other affected groups are Hispanics in the Bronx, mainly men between 40 and 50 years. Last year 146 died from overdoses, compared to 64 in 2010. 

"Until young whites began to die in Staten Island nobody realized that we faced a serious heroin epidemic," says Mike Selick, from New York Harm Reduction Educators.  

* The authors won the 2013 National Journalism Award and the 2014 Ortega y Gasset Journalism Award for a series entitled "Narcotics in America", published by EL UNIVERSAL.