Overdose deaths have become all too common throughout the country and in New Mexico.
Drug overdoses killed 63,632 Americans in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. To put that number in perspective, it’s the equivalent of the combined populations of Roswell, Taos, Silver City and Jemez Springs dying in one year because of drugs.
Five hundred of those fatal overdoses were in New Mexico.
While addicts often pay for their addictions with their lives, dealers typically just move on to the next unfortunate soul needing a fix, wreaking even more heartache in the communities where they operate.
Despite the damage they cause, drug dealers who are caught are rarely made to atone for the lives they’ve destroyed. More often that not, they’re hit with state possession or trafficking charges, which are frequently pleaded down to lesser felonies or even misdemeanors.
But the U.S. Attorney’s HOPE Initiative is giving law enforcement and prosecutors desperately needed tools to finally hold these purveyors of misery accountable. Just ask Rosendo Flores Angulo, a 40-year-old Mexican national recently sentenced to more than 18 years in federal prison for selling heroin that led to an overdose death. As Journal investigative reporter Mike Gallagher noted in a story last week, prosecuting drug dealers for overdose deaths is fairly unusual, but drug agents and prosecutors have begun to build such cases under the U.S. Attorney’s HOPE Initiative. While these cases are more difficult to prosecute, they also come with longer prison terms.
Angulo, in his plea agreement, admitted supplying heroin to the lower-level dealer, and he acknowledged learning that the dealer sold some of the heroin to a young man who collapsed and died after using it.
The young man who died – identified only as DJJ – bought a quarter gram of heroin for $20.
Federal prosecutors are pursuing a similar case against convicted heroin dealer Raymond Moya. He’s been charged with selling heroin that led to the death of 18-year-old Cameron Weiss in August 2011. Prosecutors are alleging that Weiss, a student at La Cueva High School, overdosed on heroin that was provided to him by a friend who had purchased it from Moya. Prosecutors are appealing a ruling in that case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The HOPE Initiative was launched in January 2015 by the UNM Health Sciences Center and U.S. Attorney’s Office in response to the national opioid epidemic.
It’s no secret Albuquerque is in the midst of a terrible crime wave and local police and prosecutors are overwhelmed. So it’s great to see federal authorities stepping in and lending a hand, and local authorities welcoming the help rather than fighting turf battles.
But more than that, the prosecutions of Angulo and Moya send the message that dealers can and do face consequences for peddling this poison. The prosecutions also illustrate that dealing drugs isn’t a victimless crime.
The 18-years-plus sentence Angulo received won’t bring back the young man who died using his heroin, but it certainly makes it clear dealers risk real punishment. And it is the type of prosecution effort that when scaled up can make a real difference on our streets, and in our homes, and in our families.
The Albuquerque Police Department and 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office should continue working with federal law enforcement and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in these cases where stiff penalties are available at the federal level. Going that route increases the odds that the many victims of illegally dealt drugs and their families will receive real justice, and dealers will either do prison time or take their deadly business elsewhere.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.