In America's Heartland, Heroin Crisis Is Hitting Too Close To Home

In America's Heartland, Heroin Crisis Is Hitting Too Close To Home

1:15pm May 26, 2015
Sabas Sanchez Jr. was better known among his neighbors in Madison, Neb., as "Gordo" — Spanish for chubby. He also had an oversized personality. His father keeps this tattered photo in his wallet.
Sabas Sanchez Jr. was better known among his neighbors in Madison, Neb., as "Gordo" — Spanish for chubby. He also had an oversized personality. His father keeps this tattered photo in his wallet.
Bobby Caina Calvan / Heartland Reporting Project
  • Sabas Sanchez Jr. was better known among his neighbors in Madison, Neb., as "Gordo" — Spanish for chubby. He also had an oversized personality. His father keeps this tattered photo in his wallet.

    Sabas Sanchez Jr. was better known among his neighbors in Madison, Neb., as "Gordo" — Spanish for chubby. He also had an oversized personality. His father keeps this tattered photo in his wallet.

    Bobby Caina Calvan / Heartland Reporting Project

  • Michelle Andrews won't ever stop grieving for her younger brother, Gordo. She wants authorities to find the source of the heroin that killed him.

    Michelle Andrews won't ever stop grieving for her younger brother, Gordo. She wants authorities to find the source of the heroin that killed him.

    Bobby Caina Calvan / Heartland Reporting Project

Heroin, today, is killing more and more people in rural America.

One Mexican cartel has seeded low-cost heroin around rural towns in the Southwest and Midwest, selling it cheap and easy, almost like pizza.

Madison, Neb. — population 2,500 — is just a speck of a town, a two-hour drive from the big-city bustle of Omaha. But it's not far enough away to avoid the growing impact of heroin.

"The world's gotten smaller," says Police Chief Rod Waterbury. "If drugs can make it to Chicago, they can make it here."

It takes Waterbury just 15 minutes to patrol Madison. On Main Street, he rolls by a couple of taquerias, a pharmacy and a beauty parlor.

In many parts of Nebraska, a dose of heroin sells for as little as $10. Over the past decade, 13 people in the state have died from the drug; six of those deaths happened just last year.

"It used to be all meth, before that it was all coke," says Madison County Attorney Joe Smith. "Now we're seeing on a routine basis some heroin."

Smith says one heroin death in particular shook Madison's growing Latino community.

"We know it's a problem because, in this case, Sabas Sanchez died," he says.

Sabas Sanchez Jr. was known around town as "Gordo," meaning chubby in Spanish. He was 32 when he died. Sanchez's mother, Rosa, can't forget that cold September morning two years ago. She was startled awake by pounding at her door.

"'[My son is dead, my son is dead!]'" she recalls her husband yelling in Spanish. "I ran down the stairs, and I went outside and started touching my son's cheeks, and he was cold."

Rosa says she knew Sabas was fond of all kinds of drugs, but she didn't know about the heroin.

"He would tell me: 'Mom, this is such a small town. Everybody does drugs,' " she says.

Across Nebraska, authorities are keeping a watchful eye on the spread of heroin. Michael Sanders is with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He says the drug has already overwhelmed parts of neighboring Iowa.

"We are seeing a creeping further west from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids," he says. "Luckily, it hasn't been moving as rapidly as what we were expecting, which we're very thankful of."

Back in Madison, Waterbury says small town police departments
like his don't have the resources or the experience for long-term drug investigations.

"Our department is small. There's only four of us," he says. "It means we're usually busy with the minor day-to-day traffic patrols, school patrol, chasing dogs."

What makes it worse? Drug abusers in rural areas, like Sabas Sanchez, don't get the help they need.

"Down here we have a picture of Sabas and my brother Richard on our first Christmas in this house," says Michelle Andrews, Sabas' sister. She wants authorities to find the source of the heroin that killed her brother.

"The worst part about it is no one's paying for what they did," she says.

She remembers Gordo as playful.

"He liked to joke around, laugh. He had a good heart," she said.

Andrews adds that the memory of his death still haunts her. Sometimes she hears him singing along to a favorite song, one in particular.

It's called "El Columpio," or "The Swing." The lyrics read: "It feels good when you're up, but it hurts to come down.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're covering a national story this morning by zooming in on one small town. Heroin is claiming more lives across the Midwest. It's hitting communities that were unprepared for a drug many associate with big-city crime, and that includes the tiny town of Madison, Neb. That's where we go next as we report on opiate addiction in Middle America. Here's Bobby Caina Calvan of the Heartland Reporting Project.

BOBBY CAINA CALVAN, BYLINE: It takes Police Chief Rod Waterbury just 15 minutes to patrol Madison.

ROD WATERBURY: This time of the day, there's not going to be much going on anymore.

CALVAN: On Main Street, Chief Waterbury rolls by a couple of taquerias, a pharmacy and a beauty parlor. Madison, Neb., population 2,500, is just a speck of a town, a two-hour drive from the big-city bustle of Omaha. But it's not far enough away to avoid the growing impact of heroin.

WATERBURY: The world's gotten smaller. If drugs can make it to Chicago, they can make it here.

CALVAN: In many parts of Nebraska, a dose of heroin now sells for as little as $10, and over the past decade, 13 people in the state have died from the drug. Six of those deaths happened just last year.

JOE SMITH: It used to be all meth. Before that, it was all coke. Now we're seeing, on a routine basis, some heroin.

CALVAN: That's Madison County Attorney Joe Smith. He says one heroin death in particular shook Madison's growing Latino community.

SMITH: We know it's a problem because in this case, Sabas Sanchez died.

CALVAN: Sabas Sanchez, Jr. was known around town as Gordo, or chubby in Spanish. He was 32 when he died. His mother, Rosa Sanchez, can't forget the cold September morning two years ago when she was startled awake by some pounding at her door.

ROSA SANCHEZ: I heard my husband yelling, (speaking Spanish), and I ran down the stairs. And I went outside and I started touching my son's cheeks and he was cold.

CALVAN: Rosa says she knew Sabas was fond of all kinds of drugs, but she didn't know about the heroin.

SANCHEZ: He would tell me, Mom, this is such a small town - everybody does drugs.

CALVAN: Across Nebraska, authorities are keeping a watchful eye on the spread of heroin. Michael Sanders is with the DEA. He says the drug has already overwhelmed parts of neighboring Iowa.

MICHAEL SANDERS: We are seeing it creeping further west from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Luckily, it hasn't been moving as rapidly as what we were expecting, which we're very thankful of.

CALVAN: Back in Madison, Chief Waterbury says small-town police departments like his don't have the resources or the experience for long-term drug investigations.

WATERBURY: We can only do what we can do. There's only four of us. It means we're usually busy with the minor, day-to-day traffic patrol, school patrol, chasing dogs.

CALVAN: What makes it worse, drug abusers in rural areas, like Sabas Sanchez, can't always find the help they need.

MICHELLE ANDREWS: Down here we have a picture of Sabas and my brother, Richard, on our first Christmas in this house.

CALVAN: His sister, Michelle Andrews, wants authorities to find the source of the heroin that killed her brother.

ANDREWS: The worst part about it is that nobody's paying for what they did.

CALVAN: She remembers Gordo as playful.

ANDREWS: He liked to joke around, laugh. He liked to play jokes on people. He had a good heart.

CALVAN: She says the memory of his death still haunts her. Sometimes she hears him singing along to a favorite song. It's called "El Columpio," "The Swing" - it feels good going up, but it hurts to come down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL COLUMPIO")

LOS RIELEROS DEL NORTE: (Singing in Spanish).

CALVAN: For NPR News, I'm Bobby Caino Calvan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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