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Fighting the meth epidemic in Galax

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Police in Galax are seeking federal funding to help

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Sure, Galax has a methamphetamine problem, Megan Brown said as she stood on her porch a few minutes' drive from the city's busy downtown.

"I don't know hardly anyone who hasn't used it," she said.

Galax is more widely known for its furniture industry, the Christmas tree farms that dot surrounding counties, and the annual fiddlers' convention that draws thousands of people from around the world.

But local law enforcement officials are trying to draw more federal attention to ongoing troubles with meth and the Mexican drug cartels blamed for running the drug into the region. Investigators call Galax a regional hub in a drug pipeline extending back to Greensboro, N.C., Atlanta and the Texas-Mexico border

Last month, the city joined neighboring Grayson County in a bid for about $300,000 in federal stimulus money to use in drug-fighting efforts. That followed talks about gaining federal designation as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a step that would unlock more government aid.

"I think we're in a methamphetamine epidemic here," Galax police Chief Rick Clark said. "This is a distribution point. There is cultural support. There are other people who speak Spanish."

Clark and others say the situation in Galax is similar to that seen in the Shenandoah Valley, where he said meth is brought to the region by Latinos, and often distributed and used by non-Latinos.

Brown, 22, said her own experiences during two long periods of meth use — now behind her — indicated that use and distribution of the drug were far from confined to the city's Hispanic population. Her own suppliers and, from what she could tell, their suppliers, had not been Latino.

Now many of her neighbors are Hispanic. Looking at their trailers, quiet in the middle of the day, she said they seemed to spend most of their time at work.

"To be honest," Brown said, "I see more white people dealing with it than Mexicans."

'A great place to hide'

The growth of the Latino population in Galax — long the highest concentration of Latino residents in Southwest Virginia and presently estimated at 15.4 percent — is an old story. Among law enforcement officials, so is the presence of Mexican cartels here.

The U.S. Justice Department lists Galax as one of three Virginia localities with a known cartel presence, along with Richmond and Arlington.

Tim Carden, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's resident agent in charge in the Western District of Virginia, said federal agents have worked with a regional drug task force since 2003 on an investigation of cartel-linked drug distribution in and around Galax. It's the type of enforcement that local officials want to see ramped up — so far in that case, 69 people have been arrested, most on charges tied to meth distribution, Carden said.

The most recent arrestees were Gustavo Arroyo and Oscar Vasquez, who were arraigned last month in federal court in Roanoke on meth distribution charges. Neither man has been tried on the charges. Both are Mexican nationals who are in the United States illegally, federal authorities said.

"Cartels tend to swim in the ocean of illegal aliens," said George Grayson, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary who has written extensively about U.S.-Mexico relations.

He did not find it surprising that Galax and other small towns across the country with high concentrations of Hispanic residents would become beachheads in the cartels' push to expand their trafficking northward.

"Often the cartels will use smaller towns... as an area of operations because typically the law enforcement agencies don't have the resources to deal with the underworld characters," Grayson said.

The common wisdom is that nationwide controls on pseudoephedrine and other ingredients used to make meth put an end to most of the homemade labs that were common in the United States earlier in the decade. This left an open market for the cartels, who already had made inroads in cocaine and heroin dealing in the United States, Grayson said. The cartels had the resources to set up large meth-production facilities in Mexico, and expanded their networks to carry the drugs north.

Violence may accompany that move. Last year, two Mexican men were found shot to death along a logging road in Grayson County. Both were illegal immigrants, authorities said, and their deaths are thought to have been connected to drug dealing.

The man suspected of shooting the two also is Mexican, and is thought to have returned to that country, Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan said.

Drug-related violence in Mexico has received a wave of media attention this year. But like many small U.S. towns in similar situations, Galax has little of that, Clark said.

"It's not a war zone, and I think that's part of the attraction," Clark said. "It's a great place to hide."

'It'll mess with your brain'

Brown said the lure of meth is easy to explain: "It makes you feel like you're invincible and can do about anything."

The lifelong Galax resident's involvement with meth began at age 15 when she started dating a 20-year-old man who used it, she said. Six or seven times per day, for two or three days straight, they'd smoke the drug off folded aluminum foil, holding a straw in their mouths to gather the smoke. Or they'd use the glass pipes sold in convenience stores. Then they'd crash for a couple of days and start again.

"When you come down, you get really irritated and angry," Brown said, adding that she also suffered a lot of physical abuse from her boyfriend during those years.

Her habit cost about $50 per day, Brown said. She was able to keep a job in a fast-food restaurant, and collected cans and sometimes pawned possessions to make ends meet.

Meth was simple to find in the city, and for two years her life revolved around it, Brown said. She never got into selling the drug, Brown said, and avoided legal troubles.

Then her grandmother sent her to the Tekoa facility for troubled youth in Floyd County, where she stayed for a year and cleaned up.

That lasted until Brown returned to Galax and began dating another man who used meth. She started using again. But this time, after several months of use, she stopped by herself.

"Once you figure what it's doing to your body and have had enough, it's easy to quit," she said of meth.

Now caring for her 10-month-old daughter, Destiny, expecting another child and engaged to be married, Brown said her life is full without the drug. Meth rotted her back teeth down to the gums, she said, and left her more prone to anger and less in control of her emotions.

"It'll mess with your brain," Brown said.

But she counts herself more fortunate than other users she's known.

"Some people can't come back. It drives them crazy," she said.

'This is heaven'

On a recent sunny afternoon, Galax's downtown sidewalks were busy. On the U.S. 58 strip, heavy traffic moved in and out of the strip malls. The world of drug sales and addiction seemed far away.

At an apartment complex behind one of the shopping centers, residents took in the spring air and wondered what the big deal was.

Whatever drug dealing there is in Galax, "it's a job problem," said J.S. Sawyers, prompting agreement from the group around him. Galax's unemployment rate tops 10 percent, nearly double what it was a year ago. The rate is higher still in adjacent Grayson and Carroll counties.

"Only way to make a living is selling dope," said Lauren Mayer, prompting laughter.

But they said meth was nothing they or their friends were going to mess with.

Tyree Hill, making an extended visit from Maryland, said that his impression was that Galax had scant problems with drug dealing.

"Compared to Baltimore, this is nothing. This is heaven," Hill said.

Down the road at a largely Hispanic trailer park, Angel Akers and his sisters Erika and Claudia Carranza said police may be ready to point at Hispanics for problems.

They said they had experienced the friction that accompanied the rapid increase of the city's Hispanic population, which during the 1990s increased as a percentage of the total population at the highest rate of any locality in Virginia.

With a Mexican father who returned to Mexico in the mid-1990s and a non-Latino, American mother, they grew up between cultures, said Akers, 26. They said that they endured taunts from Hispanic residents because they were not fluent in Spanish, and from non-Latino classmates because of their Hispanic features and names.

That faded as they grew up and identified more completely with the Hispanic side of the city's population.

But Claudia Carranza, 24, said Hispanic residents may still face different treatment from police. She recounted how she was pulled aside at a recent police roadblock and an officer peered into the wheel wells of her car and looked underneath it — a search for drugs, she suspected, prompted by her last name.

The incident ended when the officer told her he was checking her car's equipment and waved her on, but it left a sour memory, she said.

"We've lived here. We were born here. ... As far as looking for trouble, we mostly stay to ourselves," she said.

Farther down the row of trailers, 13-year-old Bianca Reyna, who was born in Mexico and came to the United States as an infant, said her experiences in Galax schools were wonderful.

A few students teased Latino classmates with nonsense phrases of mock Spanish, she said. But for the most part, "we all are friends," Reyna said.

'To the point where it's not noticeable'

Clark is quick to acknowledge the challenges his department faces in policing Hispanic Galax.

"I still desperately need someone who speaks the language and is also adept in the culture of diversity," Clark said.

Right now, Galax has no officers fluent in Spanish and cannot hire any because larger departments are willing to offer much higher pay, Clark said. Some officers are taking language lessons.

Similarly, a lack of resources keeps the department from tackling immigration issues directly, he said.

The stimulus money that the department is seeking may help with this, but will be put toward battling other drugs as well as meth, Clark and Vaughan said.

Clark had hoped to pursue the designation of Galax as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which would allow access to additional funding. That effort has been set aside after he learned the process to achieve such a designation could take years.

Success is far from likely because so many areas have already been designated across the country.

Last month, Clark met with Carden and U.S. Attorney Julia Dudley. They emerged in agreement that the federal officials would seek more cooperative efforts with counterparts in the areas of North Carolina that are the next stage up the drug pipeline, Carden said.

Stepping up enforcement probably won't erase meth completely, but maybe it will "make meth trafficking in Galax have less effect on the community ... curtail it to the point where it's not noticeable either to the community or law enforcement," Carden said.

"It won't go away, but reduce it to the point where it's not noticeable."