Cheese: The New Face of Heroin

Think "cheese" heroin is just an urban, Hispanic problem? You’re wrong.

Emily, 17, first tried cheese heroin two years ago and didn’t even know what it was. Before long, the suburban teen was so addicted that she was making it herself. Photographed August 26, 2007, at the Nexus Recovery Center, in Dallas.

On a cold December midnight three years ago, police officers stared at the bloody handprint of a child on a bedroom door in Oak Cliff. They had stepped across the pool of blood by the front door and seen the slumped-over, wounded man nearby. There was a fresh corpse on the garage floor and another shooting victim on the wet grass in the backyard. But it was the little handprint that made the officers search the house on Mimi Court intensely, hoping to find the child. Instead they found $350,000 in cash and $2 million worth of cocaine. The terrified youngster was speeding away in a car with his mom and bleeding father. Gilberto Lugo, the North Texas leader of the Juarez drug cartel, had a bullet in his leg, a throbbing memento from the gunman who had walked up his driveway and blasted his crew while they played pool in the garage. Authorities think the shooter was a Zeta, one of the mercenaries who started off as muscle for the rival Gulf Drug Cartel and eventually took over the organization.

Six months ago, 4 miles down West Illinois from Mimi Court, U.S. Marshals staked out a house owned by Maximiliano Garcia Carrillo, a reported Zeta lieutenant. When a short, stocky Hispanic male with a skull tattooed on the left side of his neck walked out the front door and climbed into a black ’98 Lincoln, the Marshals asked the Dallas Police Department to do a traffic stop. The driver handed the officer his license, but then sped away, running stop signs. His name was Wesley Lynn Ruiz, a 27-year-old drug dealer who belonged to a West Dallas street gang called Ledbetter 12. Cornered 10 days later, after a wild car chase, Ruiz fatally shot Dallas police officer Mark Nix in the neck with an AK-47 assault rifle.

The Zeta connection in these drug-related murders can’t be overlooked. The two crimes are both pieces of a complicated puzzle: the interconnected world of cartel drug-runners, local street gangs, and “cheese” heroin use in Dallas. To understand this murky world, it helps to step back and survey the war zone that stretches from poppy fields south of the border to the front doors of DISD schools.

This past spring was a bloody one in the Mexican drug business. Two cartels were locked in a battle with each other and with the Mexican army. On one side was the Zeta-run gulf cartel, and on the other was the Federation, a new partnership between the Juarez, Sinaloa, and Sonora cartels that has created the strongest narcotics syndicate in history. With business suffering and the Pentagon pondering a fix, in June the trafficking powerhouses called a cease-fire to cut a deal. The Zeta-Gulf team retained control of Nuevo Laredo and the I-35 supply route into Dallas. The Federation received new gateways on a border it had been bombarding with heroin for the past two years. And business boomed.

In the months between the Lugo hit on Mimi Court and the murder of officer Nix, the Dallas area suffered its second surge of heroin overdoses. But unlike the kids of prosperous Plano families who preceded them a decade earlier, the 21 recent deaths primarily involved young Hispanics snorting a powder called “cheese.” Authorities think the mixture of Mexican black tar heroin and crushed cold tablets was invented in North Texas. The first noteworthy bust of a cheese dealer took place here in March, 26 months after the first suspected overdose death. The Drug Enforcement Administration traced the heroin back through the El Paso border gateway controlled by the Federation.

With summer over and kids back in school, Dallas should be able to reassess the strength of its latest heroin epidemic. Maybe deaths and on-campus arrests will drop and cheese will prove to be a brief, tragic fad that cost the city some bad PR on CNN and Nightline. But new intelligence from the streets suggests otherwise. Police have learned that it isn’t just the cartels that have begun cooperating with each other. The street gangs that spread drugs around Dallas for those cartels have also begun cutting deals with one another and changing the way they do business. For roughly the past two years, these gangs have put their own feuds aside to focus better on selling marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and black tar heroin. Their efforts are working. Arrest patterns in recent months show that cheese is breaking out of the young Hispanic demographic in Northwest Dallas and gaining popularity with young whites, blacks, and older users all over the city.

The puzzle is coming together, but federal and local authorities still disagree on the roles played by gangs. Once they reach consensus, the question is whether the city is prepared to deal with that reality.

Tall, old trophies gleam in glass cabinets in the main entrance of Thomas Jefferson High School. Cops call the Walnut Hill address ground zero of the heroin crisis. Students call it the Cheesehead Factory. High up on the walls, white Videolarm cameras scan every inch of hallway. During the 2005-2006 school year, T.J. was rated academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency. More than 80 percent of the 1,658 students were economically disadvantaged and considered at risk of dropping out.

A poster in a girls’ bathroom spells out the danger of cocaine to young lungs, liver, brain, and womb. A poster in a stairwell warns that sniffing Wite-Out can stop your heart. In a staff bathroom upstairs, this sign: 

“Teachers!! Please lock the door when you leave the room! This room, if found unlocked, is a perfect room for drug deals!!!”

Murals of dinosaurs, planets, and trigonometry formulae stretch over bright red lockers personalized with graffiti scrawls inside: “Snoopy Baby,” “Chocolate Girl,” the traditional “Ricardo ♥ Beatriz 4ever” and the trendier “I lust SATAN.” In locker No. 914 there’s a sticker of grinning pizza parlor mascot Chuck E. Cheese. A photo of a human hand signaling a big thumbs-up has been glued to the end of his arm. Downstairs, outside the principal’s office, a 3-foot Mickey Mouse cutout holds bright balloons that say, “Make T.J. a cheese-free zone!” and, “Don’t become a statistic!”

Manuel Ontiveros, formerly an elementary school administrator, has been the principal at Thomas Jefferson for the last four years. When he took charge, in 2003, Ontiveros says there were few cases of drug possession, and he doesn’t remember anybody being under the influence. It wasn’t until the following year that dope seemed to become an issue, and he really doesn’t know why. He maintains that only a small percentage of the kids do drugs and is proud that half the student body took voluntary drug tests. Students have told police that the other half use cheese heroin.

Ontiveros considers his point persons for the drug situation to be assistant principals Paula Morgan and Dedra Bernard and the on-site DISD police officer with whom he says he works closely every day. Asked her name, he flips open his cell phone and searches the directory.

In 2005, T.J. led DISD with 43 arrests for possession of cheese, a substance unheard of elsewhere in the United States. In 2006, there were too many deaths citywide to ignore, and once the media latched onto the crisis, Ontiveros began to field calls from parents. They told him, “We know who it is.” When he asked them to speak up, they would promise to call back but never did. Because the children were fearful of retaliation, Ontiveros felt he could not share all the leads with law enforcement. “When the parents tell me, they tell me in confidence,” he says, pointing out that he has referred numerous informants to DISD police.

Asked if cheese has killed any T.J. students, Ontiveros says, “I don’t know.” Between April 2005 and September 2006, three former T.J. students joined the fatality roster: Lorenzo Ontiveros (no relation), 19; class clown Jorge Gasca, 18; and Gregorio Herrera, 17. All died in local emergency rooms after the heroin/antihistamine mix—sometimes in conjunction with other depressants—stopped their impulse to breathe. The mother of a fourth fatality told a reporter that Joaquin Cuellar got hooked on heroin when he enrolled at T.J. way back in 2001. Cuellar died with cheese in his system seven months ago while robbing—not for the first time—the Food Mart on the corner of Harry Hines Boulevard and Anson Road. The 19-year-old asphyxiated when he got stuck trying to shimmy through an air-conditioning duct the owner had narrowed to thwart thieving addicts.

Gene and Janie Vivero, both recently retired, have lived across the street from T.J. for 35 years. In their opinion, things have gone to hell in the past five. Kids climb their trees to thrash down pecans, play ball in the yard, and make out on the side street where teachers regularly park illegally and where a DISD officer, when she’s late for work, parks her blue Mustang on the grass.

“I see kids sneaking out all day long,” Gene says. He’s a stout man in a black “Git-R-Done” t-shirt, and he shakes his head while tending his backyard meat smoker. “If the principal’s not making the teachers follow the rules, why should the kids? What is he doing? Nothing. I just think he doesn’t want to confront them. That’s a weak guy.”

“There’s no security in that school,” Janie says, standing on her front lawn and staring at the big high school with her hands on her hips. “Anybody can get in.”

By the end of school last year, DISD police had arrested 146 kids districtwide for possession of cheese. In a June 21 interview, DISD Deputy Chief Gary Hodges said: “My impression—and maybe I’m wrong—is not a lot of them were gang members. They were kids—12 to 16 or 17—that were just using the stuff.”

But a week earlier, the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate had sounded a contradictory alarm. The panel unanimously approved an amendment on cheese heroin by Texas Senator John Cornyn to the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2007. The amendment reads: “Gangs recruit youth as new members by providing them with this inexpensive drug.” A press release from Senator Cornyn elaborated on a motive. “Gangs are said to provide it to young people in efforts to get them addicted and exploit dependence for membership purposes.”

One warrant issued by the DEA might support Cornyn’s claim. When federal agents arrested 38-year-old cheese supplier Martin Laguna on March 22, he had $14,000 worth of heroin and $18,000 in cash in his Northwest Dallas apartment. The agents also arrested a teenage DISD dropout, but could not find Laguna’s 19-year-old co-conspirator. Marco Antonio Romero, a member of the Love Field Players gang who dropped out of T.J. in 2004, had reportedly fled to Mexico. It was Laguna’s heroin that the DEA traced back to Juarez, through El Paso.

DISD gang intelligence specialist David Garcia says the Love Field Players and Varrio Northside gangs are the crews most likely to control the street-level traffic in cheese in the Northwest Dallas neighborhoods that feed T.J. He estimates that 20 percent of the student body at T.J. might feel some sense of solidarity with Varrio Northside but is quick to point out that very few of these social friendships would have any criminal dimension. Gang-style culture is so mainstream today that Garcia frequently sees fifth- and sixth-graders posturing as thugs. In the real criminal realm, it’s common knowledge among the law enforcement community that the cartels are filtering the killer heroin down to the street gangs through an established prison gang channel.

“My guess is the Mexican Mafia,” he says.

A shaggy-haired, tattooed narcotics officer in a muscle shirt has returned to Dallas’ Jack Evans Police Headquarters after a buy. His sergeant pokes a sample of brown paste into a test vial and thumps the glass. If the fluid in the tube turns “baby-s— green,” the lawmen know they’ve got heroin. It does not do so immediately. The sergeant shakes the vial hard, then shakes it again.

Tall, white-haired Deputy Chief Julian Bernal has been running the narcotics division for three years. By the time school let out for summer this year, the multi-agency task force that Bernal serves on seemed to have frozen the cheese death rate with a flurry of enforcement actions and awareness programs. But everyone dreaded the long vacation when the kids are out of sight, easily bored, and prone to get in trouble. A new death, the 23rd, has just claimed 17-year-old Alejandra Soto, a member of the T.J. drill team. Until her organs failed and her heart stopped, her room at Parkland was thronged for days with other Liberty Belles.

Bernal is disheartened because arrests by his troops have begun to prove that the drug has jumped out of its Love Field cradle. “It’s all over the Metroplex now in small numbers, dozens,” he says. “A lot of what we’re seeing is people in their 20s.” How and why the epidemic got started in Northwest Dallas he cannot say. What scares him and breaks his heart is that heroin has penetrated elementary schools. And he’s still irked that students at T.J. seemed to know exactly when his Labrador retrievers were coming to sniff their lockers.

“I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this,” he says, “but if you were in charge of a school, would you want police to find a whole bunch of drugs in it?”

Bernal’s $11.5 million budget includes salaries for 127 people in narcotics and the 30 detectives and five sergeants in vice.  Bernal recently requested and was granted a new six-man uniformed street squad and says he could certainly use an additional squad or two to handle complaints about drug trafficking in the city. But manpower shortfalls prevent him from reinforcing his outfit until the patrol divisions are properly staffed. He devotes what he calls an inordinate amount of time to auditing and compliance issues to make sure there will never be another scandal in narcotics like the evidence-tampering and theft fiasco in 2001. An infusion of keen young officers has helped bump arrests 25 percent this year, but while the entire unit combs the city for black tar heroin, other cartel products are as plentiful as ever. It’s hard to dent the cocaine supply when a kilo that might have cost $18,000 to $30,000 in 1992 can be had for $15,000 today—especially with the purity of that coke jumping recently from 61 percent to 77.

“It is still just as devastating as it always has been,” he says. “It’s all over, everywhere.”

Meth is also on the upswing thanks to Mexican super-labs that ramped up to fill demand when U.S. authorities on this side of the border made it difficult to buy key chemicals over the counter.

Bernal’s abiding curse is geography. Cartels value Dallas for the same logistical advantages that attract legitimate marketing enterprises. The nation’s ninth-largest city has great highway and air accessibility. “It makes drugs pretty available in the city,” he says. “People can sell it here instead of moving it halfway across the country.”

Because of a pending federal investigation, he cannot discuss the alleged assassination attempt on Gilberto Lugo by a Zeta hit man three years ago. Lugo was eventually arrested after the shooting that left the little bloody handprint on the wall in Oak Cliff. The Federation honcho pleaded guilty to trafficking conspiracy and is still in federal custody somewhere in the Sherman area. 

Bernal admits the DPD is looking for Maximiliano Garcia Carrillo, one of the most wanted fugitives in Texas. “He’s directing some activities in the area,” the narcotics chief says. “He’s got some houses in the DFW area, and he does frequent some houses in Dallas proper.”

He describes Wesley Ruiz, the accused murderer of Corporal Mark Nix, as a low-level drug trafficker. He has no idea why Ruiz was coming out of the Brandon Street house in Oak Cliff linked to Carrillo by the DEA, and says there is no conceivable reason for such a “low-level thug” to consort with a player of Carrillo’s stature. It does not strike him the least bit strange that a Dallas street gang member would frequent a house owned by someone who is supposed to be a chief enforcer in North Texas for the Gulf drug cartel.

“He might have been buying drugs,” Bernal says, “or he might have been having a beer. My office is not investigating that.”

According to Detective Robert Garcia of the Laredo Police Department, “Max” Carillo is operating independently these days. Garcia has dealt with Carillo personally and remembers the day three years ago when he got hauled in to headquarters after a double homicide in his front yard. Timid and a little pudgy, Carrillo seemed like an ordinary 37-year-old guy. He had no earthly idea who had shot his two buddies or why such a terrible thing might happen, but Detective Garcia thinks the hit might have been preemptive. As soon as the Laredo cops cut him loose, Carrillo crossed over to Nuevo Laredo and hooked up with Miguel and Omar Teviño, the brothers who run the Zetas with their partner Ivan Velasquez.

Initially, Carrillo did well with the Zetas and was put in charge of collecting money in the rich North Texas drug market. But then, Garcia says, he had a falling out with Miguel Teviño over a botched deal. Mexican intelligence sources heard that Carrillo moved up to Dallas permanently in hopes of staying alive and making enough money to help smooth things over. In April 2005, Detective Garcia found out that a Zeta wanted on murder charges in Laredo was working for Carrillo in Dallas. And it would not be hard for Carrillo to start his own outfit here. He’s an experienced operator with connections to the Mexican Mafia—the very organization suspected of channeling black tar heroin to kids in his district.

Hobbled with leg restraints, hands cuffed behind his back, Wesley Ruiz is dressed in the clownish white and red stripes worn by all maximum security prisoners in Dallas County. His nose almost touches the cinder-block wall he has been ordered to face in the frostily air-conditioned corridor in the north jail tower. Five strapping members of a Special Response Team have escorted the inmate down from his cell to an interview room. Four months into his stay, all the meth and menace have worn off. There’s a forlorn, whipped-pup look on his brow, an odd contrast to the bold blue green “Ericka” inked into the right side of his neck. Ruiz had expressed a desire to talk, but there has been a communication fumble, and his lawyer is not present. Tale untold, the prisoner shuffles back into an elevator that returns him to his cage.

It’s impossible to guess how Ruiz might have tried to explain or describe his predicament. But Senator Cornyn and other legislators don’t hesitate to describe the gang situation in America today as an “epidemic” in its own right. One of the reasons they’re alarmed is because gangs have recently started working together.

On March 9, two weeks before his deadly standoff with Corporal Nix, Ruiz was hiding under a pile of junk in the backyard of 5301 Oceanport Drive in Garland. Following a strong odor of marijuana, local police had crashed a midnight gathering at the house. A search of vehicles turned up 8 pounds of weed stuffed in a kitty litter box, 5 grams of meth, and a large bag of coke. On the floorboard of the black ’98 Lincoln in the backyard, officers also found a Kel-Tec P-11 handgun with nine bullets in the magazine. This was the car in which Ruiz would flee the traffic stop after he left Max Carrillo’s house. The Garland cops arrested Ruiz and four others.

Santos Cadena is the lieutenant recently put in charge of the Dallas Police Department’s gang unit. He says gangs and drugs are the same animal and the nature of the beast has changed. When he first worked gangs in 1992, the percentage of juveniles was much higher. Today more than 90 percent of gang members are adult career criminals, and their crimes are more violent. So two years ago, the unit moved from the department’s Youth Division into the Criminal Intelligence Bureau.

Cadena says the crew that Ruiz is known to run with has no special profile among the other 87 or so gangs in his database. Named after an old West Dallas bus route, Ledbetter 12 has about 30 members and racked up two murders in the first half of 2007, Corporal Nix included. Like most gangs, Cadena says, Ledbetter 12 sells the usual marijuana, cocaine, and meth product lines. “I’m sure they’re probably dealing some heroin,” he adds.

In Cadena’s experience, hardened street gang members who work as bottom-level distributors for cartel wholesalers are in the game for money. He says they aspire to the music video ideal of ruthless outlaws with cool cars and royal bling. His investigators use online sites such as MySpace to gather photos of the self-styled soldiers flaunting thick wedges of cash. Drugs generate the most revenue for multi-generational neighborhood gangs like the Eastside Homeboys. Cadena will not share an estimate of Eastside’s head count, fearing the information might inspire new recruits.

“There’s so many of them that if you were to see a dot map of them, you basically would see Dallas,” he says, noting that membership extends through Pleasant Grove and into Mesquite and Garland. These days it’s not unusual for a West Dallas gang member like Ruiz to get busted in Garland. During a roundup early this year, Cadena’s team found one far-flung local crew with people in Tyler, Lubbock, Plano, and McKinney. Gangs from South Dallas and Oak Cliff—even diehard enemies like the Blood and Crip sets—now regularly pop up to North Dallas apartment complexes and sell drugs side by side.

Experienced gang fighters who found these truces odd were stunned a year and a half ago when they started bumping into something called Tango Blast. It is not certain whether the two words are an acronym for the motto: Together Against Notorious Gang Organizations—Be Loyal and Stand Tall, or a reference to a Spanish slang term for “town.”

“Tango Blast is sort of an umbrella gang that street gang members join once they get locked up,” Cadena says. “They’re supposedly mostly for protection, but they use their associations to further their activities.”

Older prison gangs like the Texas Syndicate and Mexican Mafia have always offered the same protection, but in return they demand exclusive allegiance for life. Tango Blast is organized into city units that let prisoners stay loyal to their original posse. If you get locked up as an Eastside Homeboy, when you finish your time, you hit the streets as an Eastside Homeboy/Tango Blast Dallas. The dual membership and the statewide franchise structure have birthed a robust new platform for organized crime. As members cycle though the prison system, these joint affiliations keep connecting gangs that never cooperated in the past and increasing opportunities to network with the cartels. The marriage of the small drug companies with the giants makes good business sense to Mona Neill, the executive director of the North Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area agency in Irving.

“What is the difference between a drug trafficking organization and a gang?” Neill asks. “The only difference is the name.”

As the rainy summer dragged on, semantics were irrelevant to officers dealing with young cheese addicts in the Love Field neighborhoods under the Southwest Airlines flight paths. With 19 years of experience, Steve Fuentes was not prepared to find himself arresting cute little girls, 13- and 14-year-olds, doing break-ins and burglarizing homes.

“Heroin makes people do things they would never do on other drugs,” Fuentes says. “Almost every single one of the kids we run into look like they want help. They’re in pain and they want help.”

Dolores (not her real name) has a 2-month-old daughter in a tiny Mickey Mouse shirt clutched to her bosom. Tough homeboys in her eastside neighborhood cannot break heroin’s grip, but when she found out the baby was growing inside her, she tried to quit told turkey. Her big doe eyes open all the way when she recalls those four days of shakes, aches, and vomiting. “Oh, my God!” she groans. “It felt so bad.”

She didn’t want to be a zombie mom, crashed out and sleeping when the child needed her. Blissful sleep is where cheese sends you, and that’s why she loved it. Cheese isn’t the goofy buzz you get from weed that makes you laugh and pine for pizza. A counselor who used to be a junkie is empathetic about the vicious hook: “Heroin feels good.”

Dolores started using back in 2003, age 14, enticed by an older boyfriend who would become her baby’s daddy. His homeboys had just taught him how to dilute tar paste into the dirty brown base fluid called “monkey water.” The kids would dump crushed Tylenol tablets on the monkey water and snort up the brownish powder with a straw. In 2005, Dolores got caught with cheese at North Dallas High School, where she says everybody uses the drug now. DISD cops had yet to acquire the $50,000 ion trap spectrometer they needed to make a positive identification of the heroin in cheese, so Dolores didn’t get charged with felony possession. Instead she got sent to Village Fair, the disciplinary facility in Oak Cliff that helped incubate the epidemic. Troublemakers exiled from high schools like Skyline, South Oak Cliff, and Moses Molina got their first taste of cheese at Village Fair, which became a holding pen for addicts from T.J. and North Dallas.

Dolores gave treatment a stab and stayed clean for three months. After the monkey grabbed her again, she had to spend $100 a day on heroin just to keep from hurting. Sometimes she’d waste money on tar with no kick; sometimes she snorted stuff so strong it made her wobble and puke. Cheese killed three of her friends, and she got popped for possession again. This time her powder tested positive, earning her a 90-day sentence in the Juvenile Justice Program. Right after she gave birth, she tried to score one more stretch of warm, happy sleep—and the cycle started all over.

Now she’s back in a treatment program by court order, sitting in a purple plastic chair in one of those group circles where the humbled talk through their foibles as part of healing. She bottle-feeds the colicky infant that Child Protective Services may not let her keep, and says she doubts educational campaigns will solve the cheese problem because she knows very well that young people ignore good advice. In fact, as the magazine went to press, Dolores again relapsed.

Then there’s the new economic model at work. Four years ago, her homeboys only sold tar gum in $20 portions, and not everybody could afford $20. About a year and a half ago, dealers in the gang started selling $10 wads. Dolores thinks it was the introduction of these “dime” units that helped the market catch fire. Now five bucks gets you a nickel bit of tar and two solid bumps.

Her treatment advisor agrees that epidemics don’t start from nowhere. Dr. Carlos Tirado grew up in the T.J. neighborhood and blames the crisis on a sharp increase in supply. “The kids are innocent bystanders to a saturated market,” says the 38-year-old medical director at Nexus Recovery Center. “Heroin has become so available, it has to go somewhere. So it has been incorporated into the usual repertoire of drugs abused by the at-risk population.”

Tirado, also an assistant professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern, has been instrumental in getting a drug approved for treating young addicts. Value Options, a private care company contracted to manage state mental health and substance abuse funds, agreed to make buprenorphine available in September, almost three years after the first cheese death.

Dr. Frank Webster runs the psychiatric emergency center at Parkland, where at least half of the 800 patients who come in every month are strung out on some kind of drug. Webster laments that Texas ranks almost last in mental health treatment expenditures of all the states and that Dallas County gets the lowest funding in Texas.

From 2005 through May of this year, 700 people in the Dallas area were admitted as heroin inhalers into state-funded treatment programs. Dr. Jane Maxwell is an authority on the heroin-snorting problem that existed in Texas long before anybody had heard of cheese. For years, users who didn’t want to inject Mexican heroin have been squirting monkey water up their noses with eyedroppers or turning black tar heroin into powder with lactose, Benadryl, Nytol, baby laxative, Vitamin B, and coffee creamer. Dolores says she’s afraid of needles, but Maxwell knows that most inhalers end up injecting. Crime, prison, and diseases like hepatitis and AIDS are the norm. With the lives of hundreds of new young cheese addicts at stake, Maxwell is concerned that the medical, forensic, and law enforcement agencies in Dallas cannot provide the most basic information required to get a clear understanding of the epidemic.

“We do not have good toxicology data on what other drugs were ‘on board’ with the heroin,” she says. “We do not know the blood levels of these drugs in patients seen in the Dallas emergency rooms for heroin overdoses, or for individuals who died with heroin in their blood. We do not know the purity levels of all drugs being seized.”

The district attorney’s offices sit right next to the new $67 million jail tower rearing up on the Trinity river levee. Craig Watkins is especially concerned about drugs, which he calls a factor in 80 percent of all crime. A former defense lawyer and the first black D.A. elected in Texas, he is a big, dapper man who passionately rejects the retribution style of justice that has ruled in Dallas County for decades.

“You get a person who’s in possession of crack cocaine, cheese, heroin—whatever—they use it, they’re strung out, you know, and we send them to prison,” Watkins says. “We’re going to be tough. We’re going to send you to prison for such and such many years and hopefully you’ll find Jesus while you’re there. And we’re not even going to talk to you about that drug problem you got. We’re not going to talk to you about the fact that you didn’t graduate from high school and you don’t have a marketable skill. We’re just going to be mean to you. Make you go out and work in the fields in the hot sun. And hopefully that’s good enough to make you think twice when you get out about using those drugs again. Well, hell, it don’t work.”

What appears to work is the restorative justice approach that Watkins has studied in cities like the Bronx, Baltimore, and San Francisco. He thinks people convicted of drug crimes should undergo personal assessments that identify addictions and require treatment. Texas prisons release 8,000 offenders to Dallas County every year, and Watkins wants their drug problems fixed before they hit the streets. He has applied for millions in grants to fund re-entry counseling and drug courts that guide offenders to stable employment. A new gang prosecution unit uses notorious former members to warn students away from the lifestyle. Another goal: restoring trust in communities that feel alienated from the criminal justice system. Watkins suspects that trust might have helped early on in the cheese crisis.

“You have to get rid of the ‘don’t snitch’ mentality that a lot of rappers are pushing,” he says. “They even have silly t-shirts that say, ‘Don’t snitch.’ So if young folks witness a crime or know something is going on wrong in their community, they’re not supposed to tell. Our program is basically saying have responsibility and seek out the authorities. Because if you don’t stand up for your community and your family, then who will? You can feel comfortable coming to us when dealers are making it hard for you and your kids to live. We’re your friend, and we’re there to protect you, not to give you a hard time.”

Watkins knows his philosophy goes against the grain in a conservative city and a state that just executed its 400th prisoner since the death penalty was reinstated. He suggests that critics who label him a “hug a thug” dreamer start thinking with both sides of their brain.

“I don’t want to coddle criminals. It’s hard for us to address the reasons why people commit crimes and to make sure they don’t come back,” he says. “What’s easy is to say, ‘Give him five years in jail!’ ”

When the merciful D.A. demanded the death penalty for Wesley Ruiz, he told a reporter, “We have a responsibility to Corporal Nix.” His sense of obligation deserves some scrutiny. If the dysfunctional probation office that Watkins inherited had been on top of Ruiz’s paperwork, Garland police could never have set him free. It would have been impossible for the Ledbetter 12 drug dealer to replace his confiscated pistol with the assault rifle he acquired around the time he visited the house of the freelancing former Zeta lieutenant. He could never have shot Nix, a popular six-year DPD veteran who died after fearlessly charging Ruiz’s vehicle. Trapped and adrenalized, Ruiz sat in the front seat while the officer hammered the driver-side window with a metal baton. Dark tinting film held the window together while Ruiz grabbed his rifle. There were 200 grams of crystal meth in the front seat. Months before the bloody scene that followed, the Dallas County probation office had documented that Ruiz was abusing the drug.

On a hot August afternoon, reporters at DISD headquarters on Ross Avenue stare at the profile of a child’s face on a wall, the district’s logo hung up over a podium. Perhaps five years after local kids began snorting cheese, the White House drug czar has flown into town. When John P. Walters rode in from the airport, his car did not pass Bachman Pawn and Gun on Northwest Highway, the store that supplied the military-grade handgun to the Zeta who shot it out with Mexican cops last June. And he likely didn’t know that a Zeta threat had just caused the Dallas Morning News to pull its ace cartel reporter out of Mexico City.

At 2 pm, Walters steps behind the podium and faces the TV cameras. He blames Congress for the scarcity of drug-addiction treatment funds and encourages the media to inspire private sources and individual citizens to save the afflicted. He says that in the year ahead, his Office of National Drug Control Policy will start to warn children about the dangers of cheese. Then, on cue, he shakes hands with Olga Sanchez, the tiny, somber mom of a 15-year-old addict who died without receiving treatment a year after his first near-fatal overdose.

Andy Rittler is in attendance, an aide to the U.S. senator whose amendment officially linked cheese to Dallas street gangs. Asked how John Cornyn knew that gangs were using cheese as a recruiting tool, Rittler says it’s generally understood that most gangs use drugs to lure new members and that Cornyn was given specific information by Dallas police officers. Four minutes later, DPD narcotics Detective Monty Moncivais and DISD Chief Gary Hodges say they still have no evidence that gangs are a factor.

“It would be apparent to us if they were doing that,” Moncivais says.

Before he leaves, the drug czar praises local leaders. By this time, police departments as far away as Philadelphia are keeping an eye out for the deadly drug from Dallas. Asked if cheese has spread to other parts of the country, Walters says, “No.”

One week earlier, four Louisiana law agencies, including the DEA, had called their own press conference to announce the seizure of 3 ounces of cheese in Shreveport. The four men they popped had an additional 2 ounces of meth, an assault rifle, and a Dallas heroin connection.

Craig Hanley ([email protected]) last wrote for D Magazine, in May, about the illegal immigrant referendum in Farmers Branch. He is the co-author of the book William & Rosalie: A Holocaust Testimony (University of North Texas Press).


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