Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Esperanza Cordova isn’t afraid of the blues.
Then again, the 43-year-old isn’t afraid of much.
She’s been using heroin since she was 15 and – once fentanyl showed up – overdosed “plenty of times” on a mix of the two. In the past year, she’s seen more than a dozen people overdose and die. Not strangers, people she cared about. Too many to count.
“I’ve lost a lot of people, a lot of friends, a lot of family to that – myself included – but they brought me back,” she said. “They mix it with heroin and they don’t tell you … When you go to do your regular shot, it’s not your regular shot.”
After heroin dried up five months ago, Cordova switched to smoking fentanyl full-time. From the corner of Charleston and Chico, Cordova, who didn’t have a car, said it would take her five minutes to score a $10 pill. That’s $3 if you know someone.
“You can find it up here, you can find it Downtown, you can find it on the West Side – you just ask somebody, ‘Eh, you got any blues?'” she said.
As those who call the streets of East Central home see fentanyl take over before their eyes – the drug has stirred something of a perfect storm across the state. Federal authorities are seizing record amounts of fentanyl as it takes the place of other drugs and has local law enforcement fighting a spike in the violent crime and property crime that has come along with it. Health officials and doctors, meanwhile, count the rising dead from a record number of overdoses as the drug takes center stage in the opioid crisis.
A shifting landscape
The drug has changed the streets of Albuquerque.
Along the alleyways, corners and open lots of East Central, fentanyl has left its trace almost everywhere. Syringes have been replaced or, at the very least, joined by pen tubes and crinkled tin foil crisscrossed with long, black lines – tools used to smoke the pills.
An enclave off Chico hosts boxes bursting with black-lined foil amid clothing and syringe carcasses. A man on the corner of Wisconsin and Central SE chases smoke off a piece of tin foil as rush-hour traffic flies by. He takes a break when a woman holding a puppy walks up, pulls a roll of foil from his shopping cart and hands her a square – the exchange as nonchalant as a neighbor borrowing sugar.
People huddle beneath jackets on curbs and bus stop benches to smoke it, the chemical scent filling the air. The users, some as young as 12, turn to sex work and crime to get it. People are killing and others are getting killed over it.
Those who live on the streets say people are “willing to sell their souls” for the little blue pill. Those who do outreach for drug users say they can’t get enough Narcan, an overdose reversal drug. And the things fentanyl users need: foil, pipes and fentanyl test strips – used to determine whether the substance is mixed in with other drugs – are illegal to give out and possess.
Angela, a homeless woman who did not want to be identified by her full name, said you don’t have to be a user to come into contact with the drug. She, her husband and two kids are among hundreds of families living in motels off East Central.
Angela said ambulances come by the hotel at least four times a week for fentanyl overdoses. On a walk to the grocery store, she said she gets asked if she has any blues a handful of times.
Angela said on East Central people use the drug blatantly, on the bus or on the curb, and everyone carries Narcan just in case. She said her young boys have come to know what fentanyl looks like and recognize the foil used to smoke it.
Angela said, when they’ve seen the blue pills, users have told her boys, “You can’t have that, it’s candy.” She said she corrects them: “No, it’s medication.”
Angela doesn’t use the drug but is on a methadone program after getting hooked on prescription pills following a brain surgery five years ago.
She said fentanyl is “a different beast” altogether.
“It’s not anything to be messed with,” Angela said.
‘A game of survival’
Cindy Jaramillo, an ex-heroin user and founder of Street Safe New Mexico, said many of the organization’s clients have switched to fentanyl. Some of her own family members have done the same.
“It scares me because I don’t know if I’m going to get a call that they’re dead one day,” Jaramillo said. “I’ve just seen how it’s taken our community over.”
She said those who use fentanyl have gotten more desperate and dangerous in their crimes to get the drug – calling the situation on East Central a “game of survival.”
Jaramillo said the decline of those who get hooked is rapid. She sees it every day in clients, like Cordova, who they try to help.
“It’s horrible seeing the change, it hurts my heart,” Jaramillo said. “Their attitude and the way they take care of themselves, it all goes downhill.”
She said the drug, which gives users a stronger high but one that doesn’t last as long, has filled a space left by heroin. Many fentanyl users believe they are doing themselves a favor because they smoke fentanyl and don’t need syringes. Others turn to it because they didn’t have veins left from needle use.
Compared with heroin, Jaramillo said fentanyl is particularly deadly as Narcan doesn’t work as well to save someone.
“With heroin you hit them once and they come back, with fentanyl you have to hit them two or three times. It’s crazy,” she said.
Once Jaramillo used five doses of Narcan on a man at a motel before he came back.
“I was freaking out, like this is way too much … We finally got him back, he was already purple, he was gone,” she said, shaken just by the memory.
He was only one of a dozen people she has resuscitated from a fentanyl overdose in the past year. At least a few didn’t make it.
‘I was real naive’
For Cordova, known on the streets as “Mitchelle,” the road here has been long.
She said she was raised in a family where alcohol and intravenous drug abuse was commonplace and she started using when she was 8.
“I was real naive,” Cordova said. “At the age of 15 was my first shot (of heroin) and I loved that feeling.”
From that point on, her life followed a pattern familiar to the streets.
Over nearly three decades, Cordova bounced between jail cells, treatment centers and the streets on prostitution and drug-related charges.
By 2012, according to court records, Cordova was on probation for possession and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, PTSD and epilepsy. She had lost custody of her five children.
Between the backslides there were stretches of hope.
A probation officer wrote Cordova had the potential to “change her life around” but “occasionally succumbs to moments of weakness and unclear thinking.” A year later, the officer wrote Cordova had fallen into a meth habit and her decline “has been rapid and extreme.”
“She is now at the point where her substance abuse is having a very dangerous and negative impact on her personal health and safety, as well as the safety of those around her … if (Cordova’s probation) is reinstated, she will either overdose on heroin or continue using methamphetamine.”
Eight years later, another vice.
Clad in a dirty pink hoodie and plaid corset, Cordova seems resigned. Her long hair is a wash of faded gray and red locks that frames a face lined with the passing of time, nights spent on the streets. Her eyes are a deep brown, almost black.
She said she knows her tolerance with fentanyl and doesn’t push past her limit.
“It’s just another habit I have,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for so long, I know my tolerance. I don’t overdo my tolerance unless I really want to go somewheres.”
However, Cordova said she worries about the young people she sees using it on the streets. They remind her of the young, naive girl she once was.
Cordova said she thinks the drug will go away sooner or later, like crack in the ’90s – another habit she fell into.
“Eventually it will die down,” she said. But it will still take all those lives with it.
Just a week before, 19-year-old Joseph Morales was shot to death in a car at Dallas and Copper. Cordova said he had been looking for fentanyl moments earlier.
“Out here all you have is each other and you get to know certain people – you get close to them – then something drastic happens and there’s not much you can really do, you just have them in memories,” Cordova said. “It affects me greatly, it affects everybody really, the family – their kids, mothers, fathers – it affects us out here because we lose another close friend of ours because we couldn’t save them because the Narcan doesn’t take them out of it.”
As Cordova gathers her belongings and heads off toward the uncertainty of another night on East Central, Jaramillo and Street Safe co-founder Christine Barber search for a client named “JJ.”
The pair said between them, they have brought her back from a fentanyl overdose on 10 separate occasions. More than anyone else.
“We told her she’s not allowed to use fentanyl anymore,” Barber said. “… Anytime we don’t see her, we figure she’s OD’d.”
Barber scanned the parking lot – filled with tents and roving shadows – looking for JJ.
But she was nowhere in sight.