Q&A: Heroin expert Sam Quinones to talk about Tri-State opiate epidemic at NKU event

COVINGTON — A journalist who discovered the pipeline between Mexican heroin traffickers and Midwestern prescription drug abusers is coming to the Tri-State.

Sam Quinones will discuss his latest book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, and lead a panel discussion about the Tri-State's heroin epidemic at Northern Kentucky University on April 18.

The former Los Angeles Times reporter, who covered the crack epidemic from the late '80s to early '90s, noticed something very different when he started to cover heroin.

“With crack, all you did was cover public violence associated with crack sales. It was nightly car jackings, drive-by shootings, Bloods and the Crips feuding, bullets whizzing through apartment buildings, crimes of crack dealers certain neighborhoods,” he said. "Man, everything you saw about that drug was public, and I kind of assumed that drug problems always were public.”

“There was no public violence associated with this (heroin) problem, and that’s also what helped keep it quiet,” he said. “It just seemed to me a story that had to be told, and no one was telling it because no one was either recognizing it or wanted to talk about it.”

Quinones traced a network of black tar heroin dealers in the United States to the small town of Xalisco, in Mexico’s Pacific Coast state of Nayarit.

Q - Why are these drug traffickers all from the same Mexican town?
A - In Mexico, it’s very common for everybody in one town to do the same job because working-class people don’t have access to education. So you learn your job and life’s work based on what other people around you are doing. You’ll find whole towns where everyone is a construction worker…in my first book, you’ll see a story of a town where everybody makes popsicles.

Q - Describe the drug traffickers you interviewed. 
A - They are the anti-Scarface. They are completely non-violent, very much under the radar. No bling. No partying. None of that. They send all their money home. They’re like as quiet as door mice while they’re here in the United States. They don’t want to call attention to themselves. It’s a system unlike any other I’ve seen....They pay these (drug traffickers) in salary. Never in the drug world do you have people on salary….Whatever town they happened to be in — Columbus, Cincinnati, Memphis, Nashville, Charlotte, Reno, Indianapolis, Minneapolis — there’s dozens of towns where these guys have set up….They drive around with balloons in their mouths — balloons of heroin.

They had a system that was quite ingenious and very hard to beat because the cops would arrest a bunch of guys and a week later — maybe even less — the replacements would be up from Mexico to take their place. It was just remarkable. Most Mexican drug-trafficking organizations don’t like to sell retail. There’s too much risk. What most trafficking organizations out of Mexico do is sell, you know, wholesale —  five kilos, 10 kilos, 20 kilos, that kind of thing. Rarely do you have drug trafficking organizations selling 10th of a gram doses of the drug. These guys were doing that because they had access to a large labor pool in the area of Nayarit, the state where they’re from.

They make a conscious effort not to have anything  — to look exactly like a small-time, common street dealer. So when you bust them, they never have large amounts of money, no large amounts of dope. No guns, no toys, no fancy cars, anything like that — nothing. It looks like these guys are just small time people, but that’s what they learn to do.

Q - How did you convince them to open up to you?
A - I almost always wrote to them in prison. Most of them said no. But you don’t need many to tell the story, and I got a few.

Q - Do these people want to be drug traffickers?
A - No. Most of these people hate heroin. They would never do heroin. They don’t like heroin. They think it’s disgusting, but it’s money to get you out of poverty, and that’s not a trivial thing. Small town Mexico is very conservative. Think about small town Nebraska. That’s kind of the way it is. It’s very conservative, very traditional, and people don’t like drugs, but they don’t like poverty even more. So that’s kind of how they come to it. It got a lot of people out of poverty. 

Q - You’ve compared these drug traffickers to a pizza delivery service. Why?
It seemed very obvious that’s what they did. You call an operator, they deliver your dope just like pizza and it seemed interesting because these guys did not use guns. They used a lot of other strategies that were common to typical capitalist enterprising. They used branding. Every time you bought one of those balloons, you knew how much heroin is in that balloon — a 10th of a gram. They used customer service, ‘We’ll come to you. We’ll drive it over to you. We’ll meet you. You don’t have to go to skid row or some scary motel or some dope house. We’ll bring it to you.’ Customer service and convenience. 'If we have a bad batch — and by that I mean not as strong as usual —  we’ll give you a free one next time'….'If you buy from us Monday through Saturday, we give you a free one on Sunday.' It was not the barrel of the gun that gave these guys their market share. It was far more quiet, far more insidious, service convenience and all these things that seemed amazing to us. 

What: "A Conversation with Sam Quinones"

When: 7 p.m. April 18, 2016 

Where: Greaves Hall at Northern Kentucky University

How to attend: Tickets are free. Click here to register. 

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