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Here You Learn to Keep Secrets

Heroin, Cocaine and Española, New Mexico

by JORDAN GREEN

Sister Emmanuel: Maria, have you been visited by the souls who "self-destructed" by drugs, overdosing, for example?

Maria Simma: Yes, they are not lost. It all depends on the cause of their drug-taking; but they must suffer in Purgatory.

- The Amazing Secret of the Souls in Purgatory: An Interview with Maria Simma by Sister Emmanuel of Medjugorge

ESPAÑOLA, New Mexico.

Addiction to heroin and cocaine is a fact of life in the remote villages of Northern New Mexico’s Rio Arriba County as certain and yet as inscrutable as the thin, mountain air that blankets the ancient valleys, and the jagged heights of the Jemez and Sangre de Christo mountains that bracket the upper Rio Grande.

Two factors account for Rio Arriba having the highest per capita heroin overdose rate in the country: entrenched generational poverty and proximity to the Interstate-25 pipeline from El Paso, Texas to Denver. It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that a sparsely-populated county roughly the size of Connecticut with a history of lawlessness would serve as a natural transit point for overland shipping to major markets such as Denver and Chicago.

But the story of heroin addiction in Northern New Mexico begins long before Americans developed a mass appetite for cocaine and heroin. The story can be traced back to the first foray of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate into Northern New Mexico.

The Catholic faith was established in the upper Rio Grande Valley in 1598 with the arrival of Oñate, who was accompanied by Spanish settlers, and converted Jews fleeing religious persecution in Spain. There they found a long-established Pueblo Indian culture. The Pueblos carried out a violent revolt in reaction to harsh Spanish rule, and later acquiesced to the protection of the Spanish crown against raiding bands of Apaches and Comanches. The Spanish settlers cultivated the high desert ground and eked a living in the harsh frontiers of three succeeding nations: Spain, Mexico and the United States.

"Heroin addiction is the involution of the trauma of being the conqueror and the conquered," said Hakim Archuletta, a Hispanic counselor from Chimayó who is a convert to Islam. "The perpetrator-victim cycle gets repeated. It’s in the family. It’s in the streets with the children. It’s in the institutions. The whole history of trauma in New Mexico is that the women end up carrying the babies of the conquerors. It comes in another way with white people who come and take away the jobs."

The Spanish settlers formed organizations of hermanos penitentes in the eighteenth century to perform the rites of the faith when the Spanish crown periodically recalled priests. Later, when New Mexico came into the possession of the United States, the penitentes dispensed vigilante justice against Anglo settlers who threatened Hispanic land ownership. Over the centuries, the penitentes have nurtured a cult of suffering, binding themselves to crosses and scourging themselves to prove their fraternal membership and commemorate their people’s gradual loss of land and power.

"There’s this long history of social trauma that has involuted in the individuals," Archuletta said. "How many heroin addicts have not lived in a home as a child where there was extreme violence? Probably none."

Five addicts fatally overdosed in the Española area in the space of six days during September, reports the Rio Grande Sun, the local weekly newspaper. For a city of 9,688 people that is the commercial hub of the county, it’s a staggering number. The newspaper’s pages are regularly filled with death notices for young people lost to drug overdoses, car accidents, illness or other catastrophes.

In one written for 23-year old Marty Jimmy Trujillo, whose death was reported as a suspected overdose, the voice of the deceased is channeled as a request of God to comfort the living: "Though I live with you in heaven, there’s something you must know. I never got to say good-bye before I had to go. For I was much too busy and Lord how could I know "

Cheap black-tar heroin poured into the Española Valley from the Mexican state of Sinaloa in the years following World War II. The heroin epidemic has become an intergenerational problem, with children often following the example set by addicted parents rather than steering clear of the misery to which they’ve been exposed. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that in 1999 a visiting Department of Justice team concluded that Northern New Mexico’s exceptionally strong families tend to undermine recovering addicts’ efforts to get clean rather than help them because drug use is so prevalent in families.

While heroin is the cross the community must bear in unwelcome media attention, crack cocaine, crystal meth and prescription painkillers have also made major inroads among young drug users. Where 35 years ago users gradually developed their addictions over a period of decades, young people today are taking heroin in higher quantities, and in deadly combination with prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Lortab, according to one recovering addict.

The Sun and The New Mexican have chronicled the abject failure of a revolving cast of drug treatment agencies to put a dent in the problem of addiction, but no one has yet been able to explain the supply side of the equation.

Who might be organizing the import of heroin and cocaine from Mexico, and what connections might they have to the drug cartels that control the trade? The valleys of the Rio Grande and the Rio Chama reveal no ostentatious displays of wealth among the adobe homes and trailers. No family names are ever mentioned, even in rumor or innuendo, as possibly being responsible for the plague. Addicts and small-time dealers say they don’t know who is making the money, even as they insist there is some larger malevolent force of profit, political collusion, and corrupt law enforcement setting events in motion.

Taking up residence in the barrios around Espanola — as I did when I started working for the Sun as an education reporter — it’s impossible to not become aware of the pervasiveness of addiction even as you learn the habit of discretion. You know and you do not tell. About the undocumented Mexican immigrant who presents the small tool kit displaying two neatly-cut lines of coke. About the neighbors in the house at the head of the driveway who are selling coke. About the friend who is in and out of rehab in Albuquerque.

You help a neighbor get a car started, you get invited to a barbecue, you drink a beer in the driveway, and you learn to keep the secrets. Tenants come and go by the month as the instability of poverty deals out electricity shut-off notices, eviction letters, and restraining orders.

You sit at a kitchen table at a party with a group of young people in their early twenties. Some of them have young children whose fathers are already absent. Some are couples. Others are women unattached by children or romantic partners who tell stories of drinking to the point of alcohol poisoning and beating each other senseless. An older man, a known dealer from the neighborhood, pulls up and your neighbor, a 24-year old single mother, gets in the car and sits with him in the driveway for 45 minutes.

Addiction among Rio Arriba’s young is almost without exception part of the region’s legacy of conquest and subjugation, played out in episodes of domestic and sexual violence, Archuletta said.

"It almost always begins with a traumatized childhood," he said. "They don’t feel secure in themselves. Life is difficult and impossible to face. So one strategy is to be out of yourself. It can be the road that takes them into failure over and over again."

At the party, a young woman I will call Kim — a brawler in a skateboarding sweatshirt whose handsome Aztec face is framed by short brown hair — tells a boasting tale of riotous living in a crack house in Cuba, 76 miles distant across the Jemez Mountains.

A male friend sold crack out of her bedroom, she said, which was fine because no one was sleeping. The front room was always full of people getting high.

The glee in Kim’s voice is deeply unsettling as she tells one of her many yarns.

There was a pregnant woman who brought her husband with her to the house to get drugs. She had sex with the dealer in the bedroom, while her husband waited in the front. When she came out, she proudly showed off the rock she’d won for her favors.

"We all went, ‘Alright! You scored a crack rock,’" Kim said. "We all smoked it together."

Later, Kim erupted in fury when her dealer friend told her he needed to take a shower because he’d had sex on her bed. The tragedy of a pregnant woman prostituting herself for her addiction seemed lost on her; it was the grossness of the fact that it was her bed that had been used for the transaction that upset her.

"People begin to live their lives without feeling," Archuletta said. "If you read these old medical manuals, one of the symptoms of opium addiction is amorality. Robbing your grandmother of her TV is easy to do because you’re not there."

We must do a great deal for the souls in Purgatory, for they help us in their turn. We must have much humility; this is the greatest weapon against evil.

- Maria Simma

Other addicts, more often those who have managed to survive into their forties and fifties, express regret about the harm caused by their addictions and the dealing they’ve done to support their own habits.

>From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, an older friend of mine received heroin and cocaine shipments from Mexico, and supplied dealers across Northern New Mexico from Chama to Taos. When I met him, he had quit dealing. He was haunted by the fact that much of his clientele was dead from overdoses. He was attending services at an evangelical Protestant church in Española, and trying to mentor young men in similar trouble with drugs and criminal behavior.

I would learn that the lives of penitence and addiction are really two sides of the same coin. My friend would be called on by his minister to talk to young men in juvenile detention about the moral dangers of the drug life. He would also disappear for weeks at a time on cocaine binges. He would complain about his tenants selling drugs, and yet periodically old drug partners would turn up at the apartments he managed to look for him.

All his old friends in the life still trusted him, he said, because he never snitched; he had always done his time in prison quietly. But he wanted to tell his story to a newspaper so it could serve as a warning to those who might follow in his footsteps. He didn’t care about his personal safety. It was what he needed to do to get right with God.

Then, he went on a binge and ended up in rehab again.

Contrition is very important. The sins are forgiven, in any case, but there remain the consequences of sins. If one wishes to receive a full indulgence at the time of death — that means going straight to Heaven — the soul has to be free of all attachment.

- Maria Simma

Being exposed to drug addiction always comes back to knowing the secrets, but having to surrender to the reality that none of it is really on the table. The facts are not necessarily the facts because no one will own the information that floats on the wind. And no one will have to answer for the injustice that has been done.

Family relationships are the web of familiarity that enforces the code of silence. Family ties are strong in Northern New Mexico. If you talk, you risk incriminating a niece or a cousin. Or one of your family members might be harmed in retaliation for your candor. The shame that someone in your family is mixed up in drugs also reinforces the silence. You can’t understand how the addiction has happened, and you don’t know how to help the son or brother who is caught in the cage of addiction. So you pretend it’s not happening.

"When you have trauma, this charge in the nervous system builds up, and it has to be released," Archuletta said. "It goes out on others with violence, or inward with alcohol or drugs. It’s self-hatred. Trauma begets trauma."

The facts of how colonial oppression and the historical underdevelopment of Northern New Mexico as a reserve labor market have contributed to the hopelessness of the Española Valley are easily available, but those Marxist truths give little comfort.

It’s easy to succumb to the Catholic fatalism that hangs over this bleak valley, to feel the heavy blanket of despair and give in to the sense that a malevolent force beyond your reckoning has laid siege to everything you hold dear.

We should not always consider suffering as punishment. It can be accepted as expiation not only for ourselves but above all for others. Christ was innocence itself and he suffered the most for the expiation of our sins.

- Sister Emmanuel

JORDAN GREEN is a freelance reporter who splits his time between New Mexico and North Carolina.