Hard drug-related crime is on the rise in northern NM

On the evening of Aug. 31, a resident living near the Railyard reportedly saw two police officers arresting "two or three" people in a courtyard for shooting up heroin.

When the resident, who asked not to be identified for legal reasons, went to the scene to inquire about the arrest, the cops picked up the needles and left in a hurry.

"Would the police or city have informed any of us owners or tenants at the Parkside building what had happened?" she later wrote in an email to Santa Fe Mayor David Coss. "I doubt it."

City Councilor Patti Bushee, whose district includes the Railyard, says some neighborhoods she represents have recently experienced "a general feeling of not feeling safe." Police have busted drug houses in her district in the past, and Bushee expects them to do so again.

"I'm hearing from more people around the Railyard than I've heard [from] in a long, long time," Bushee says.
The problem isn't limited to the city. Between June and August, judges in the 1st Judicial District Court issued 14 illegal-drug-related search warrants, with five involving heroin and seven involving crack or cocaine. That's a slight uptick from 12 during the same period last year, although more from that time involved "soft" drugs, such as marijuana, while two involved prisoners suspected of stashing drugs on their persons.

The 1st Judicial District encompasses Santa Fe County and Rio Arriba County, which has the highest per capita heroin overdose rate in the nation. District Judge Stephen Pfeffer says most of the drug-related search warrants he issues occur in Rio Arriba County. He says he signs roughly two drug-related warrants a month.

He suspects Judge Michael E Vigil, who couldn't be reached before press time, signs about the same amount.

Warrants usually have the same basis for probable cause, Pfeffer says.

"Typically, there's a confidential informant who's been involved that's led to the warrants," Pfeffer tells SFR.

Most of this past summer's search warrants are the result of cooperation between state and city police units.

Juan Martinez, a state police captain who in May stepped down as commander of the Region III Drug Enforcement Task Force, says much of the heroin that comes to the state is brown heroin imported from Mexico, Arizona and California. It arrives in New Mexico by following "the path of least resistance," he says.

Heroin use in Rio Arriba County is generational, with teenagers following their grandparents' examples of addiction, Martinez says. But some attribute the drug culture's beginnings back to colonial times, when the Spanish invaded and eventually conquered the area's Native Americans.

"Heroin addiction is the involution of the trauma of being the conqueror and the conquered," Hakim Archuletta, a healing arts professional from Chimayó, said in an interview with CounterPunch in 2004.

The long history only adds to the complexity of drug enforcement.

"People in trafficking adapt to our methods," Martinez says. "[Sometimes] we need to address that and probably take a different course of action."

But Bill Piper, national affairs director at the Washington, DC-based Drug Policy Alliance, says a jump in drug-related arrests or search warrants doesn't necessarily equal a jump in drug users. He cites a 2007 Justice Policy Institute study that concludes drug-related incarceration rates and drug use rates are unrelated.

Law enforcement agencies want to prove they're effective, especially when states and local governments debate which public programs to cut, Piper tells SFR.

"They inevitably arrest nonviolent drug users because there's always so many of them," Piper says.

Emily Kaltenbach, who heads the Drug Policy Alliance's New Mexico chapter, says a more telling measure of drug use rates would be a comparison between the number of people who voluntarily enter rehab and the number of arrests or search warrants.

In Santa Fe, Bushee is responding to the alleged heroin dealing in the Railyard with public safety community meetings, the first of which was held Sept. 12. The idea is to try to facilitate better communication between community and law enforcement.

Bushee adds that the issue will likely make its way into the March city elections.

"I don't see crime going down," she says. "I don't know if that's what people are turning to in tough times."

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