Heroin enters the West like blood through veins. The heart, down in Mexico, pumps out its illicit products in cars headed north through small border towns like Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
As regular as a heartbeat, cheap and potent black-tar heroin comes north from cartel strongholds in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Nayarit, over the border and on through Colorado Springs to Denver, to Salt Lake City, to Laramie and then even farther: Bellingham, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and even Anchorage, Alaska.
In 2014, the Drug Enforcement Agency estimated that a quarter-million pounds of heroin passed through the West. Since then, officials estimate that Mexico has increased its production by 50 percent to quench the United States' growing thirst for heroin.
The West's open spaces allow drugs like black-market prescription drugs, narcotics and heroin to move faster here than in the highly compartmentalized East, which has higher populations concentrated in smaller spaces, says Ernie Martinez, director of the executive board for the National Narcotics Officers Association Coalition, a collaboration between federal drug enforcement officials and state and local-level officers, among others.
While the national heroin epidemic has put Eastern cities in the spotlight, the percentage of drug users in the West is actually greater than that in the East.
Alaska, Montana, Oregon, and Colorado have the highest percentage of people aged 12 and older who have used illicit drugs such as heroin or methamphetamine in the past month, according to an anonymous survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Opioids, which encompass the numerous prescription painkillers on the market as well as street-manufactured heroin, now kill more people nationwide than guns or car crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Colorado and Oregon lead the country in rates of abuse of prescription painkillers.
Western overdose rates are also likely under-reported, says Tim Condon, a researcher at the Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions at the University of New Mexico.
"Populations in the West are dealing with this epidemic in a more isolated way [than in the East]," he says. "Fewer people are coming out about their own abuse, so there is this incorrect assumption that it's not happening here.
The West's geography stymies law enforcement's efforts to crack down: Isolated Western highway corridors span states and allow illegal drugs to move vast distances without being detected.
"You have to look at the geography," Martinez says. "The landscape is a lot wider and traffickers are moving through remote areas. It's much tougher to find them."
Major arteries, according to a 2015 DEA report, begin in Los Angeles and Denver, where organizations have created strategic hubs to facilitate the movement of drugs through the West.
From those strongholds, drugs travel across the country's busiest highways, like Interstate 25, which moves drugs north and south, and Interstate 70, which moves drugs east and west. Those freeways intersect in Denver, putting the city "at the center of an 'X marks the spot,'" Martinez says.
Organized cartels from Mexico have succeeded at establishing strongholds in the West and are the region's main suppliers. They include the Sinaloa Cartel, thought to have originated in Sinaloa, and the "Xalisco Boys" of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación from Nayarit, which have become known for dispatching heroin orders within urban hubs like a pizza delivery system, according to Martinez, who investigated the cartel in the Denver area.
Once heroin makes it over the border, it often lands at stash houses in San Diego and Los Angeles; Tucson, Phoenix and Nogales in Arizona; and Antelope Wells, New Mexico, before the substances make their long journeys from the Southwest to the Northwest and out to the Midwest and farther east, according to Douglas Coleman, special agent in charge of the Phoenix Division of the DEA.
After those drugs depart from safe houses, distributors of illicit substances employ a number of tactics — burying drugs inside Coca-Cola bottles or mock gas tanks in cars, shuffling drugs through secret tunnels or transporting them by planes that land on clandestine airstrips — to supply drugs to the region.
In 2005, a Denver narcotics team busted heroin smugglers who stashed black-tar heroin in the airbag compartment of a car's dashboard, Martinez says.
To access the hidden heroin, the smuggler had specific instructions to follow: Put the car in neutral, turn the air conditioning or heat in the car to full blast and then swiftly hit the brake. The combination triggered a magnetic needle to open the compartment.
"Nothing has changed since prohibition days," Martinez says. "There are so many ways to smuggle and it's only getting more creative."
Responding to those methods has taxed the resources of community law enforcement that are struggling to get the opioid epidemic under control.
"We do a good job at disrupting the major traffickers, but at the same time, you plug one hole on the dyke and the water comes out of another," Martinez says.
The prolific traffickers in the Rocky Mountain region — Colorado through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho — quickly adapt after such disruptions.
"It's like octopus arms; they are constantly moving and seeking new areas," Martinez says. "There are just more [drug traffickers] than there are of us."
Meanwhile, drug users are also changing.
In Colorado, Martinez says he's observed in shift over the past five years to a higher percentage of "poly drug users" that partake in a cocktail of drugs, rather than stick to a single substance.
On top of the myriad drugs available on the street — hydrocodone, fentanyl, muscle relaxers and heroin — the marketing of prescription drugs by the American pharmaceutical industry has added to demand, Martinez says.
"It's like every color of the rainbow of drugs is spreading everywhere," he says. "Once we focus our efforts on catching heroin traffickers, the reach of another substance grows wider.
"The arm goes all the way to Montana, Idaho, the Dakotas and spills over into the Midwest and the East. It's amazing."
Paige Blankenbuehler, who has journalism degrees from Fort Lewis College and the University of Missouri, is an editorial fellow at High Country News (@paigeblank on Twitter). This story originally appeared online at hcn.org on June 7, 2016.
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