Generation Meth: Inside South Dakota’s Native Reservation Methamphetamine Rings
The source is scared spitless. Noticeably twitchy with nervous glances and hushed quavering words. But they’ve seen too much, they say. And they’ve had enough of the tragedy. It’s time to speak up, they tell me, situated as we are in the confines of my vehicle, parked off of the beaten path, away from prying eyes. The person has thought long and hard of telling a story that has gotten others killed and will again just as certain as brass wool goes into a glass pipe. The methamphetamine trade works that way. And when the Mexican cartels are involved, the sentence for snitch is as certain as the flow of high quality crystal that is ravaging big cities and small towns across the United States in an epidemic wave of destruction. And in South Dakota, Native American populations of the Lakota Sioux have been as hard hit as any in the country. That’s why the source is in my truck. To tell the story and ask advice about what to do with what they know and to weigh the risks of going to police, or having someone else carry the message. They are so close to the trade that stakes are high and getting higher in more ways than one.
2018 finds the nation wrestling with and finally responding, at least in part, to an opioid addiction pandemic that kills 75 people a day in the United States. 24,000 people a year. The source tells me that for a time over the past ten years, through overprescription and hijacked supply, prescription pills were making serious inroads into the illicit drug trade of all kinds. Through Indian Health Services and other doctors and through criminal sources, pills were as easy to get as a stick of chewing gum. Easier on the reservations. Hydrocodone. Oxycodone. Oxycontin. Darvocet. Ritalin. Adderall. Novril. The source rattles off a list of painkillers and stimulants with names both familiar and obscure. In an era when four of five heroin addicts start their journey in a legally obtained opioid bottle, the source says pill sharing, doctor shopping and prescription forgery have become more common than alcohol abuse on the reservation. Doctors and health providers were too eager to please, the source says. Too motivated to overprescribe and dispense requested medications and move on to the next patient. In amounts that made medication sharing a foregone conclusion.
“Everyone has at least one painkiller prescription,” the source says. “Usually three or four. People go back to the same doctors or to new doctors making new complaints about pain and boom. You get a new scrip that can be refilled every month. Get four or five of those, and there’s plenty to sell or share. Plenty to go around,” the source says.
And they tell me they speak from experience. A car accident 15-years ago opened the door on a decade long dive into the opioid buffet. First for legitimate treatment of real pain. Later for “chronic pain” that was more about a chronic habit than an actual malady. Addicts tell lies for a living, both to themselves and everyone else, the source says. But a few years ago, an end to a toxic relationship with a fellow user gave opportunity to clean up and start fresh that proved a lifesaver. The significant other never kicked the habit before the habit kicked them. For good. And so it goes.
But in the past two years something has changed, the source says. After a wave of negative publicity surrounding high profile celebrity deaths from opioid overdose and abuse, doctors are wising up and clamping down. A significant number are less willing to prescribe and more wary of drug seeking behavior in a way that has made stashing and stockpiling a difficult routine. And the source says, with predictable speed and brutality, methamphetamine dealers and Mexican supply of cheap and high quality meth product are filling the void.
“Meth has exploded. Everyone is on it. Every family has a member that’s on it,” the source says, speaking openly of a scourge that is ravaging Native American communities with both the destruction of addiction and with the accompanying crime wave of murder, theft and violence surrounding the players in the game.
In the last four years, snitches and supply thieves and small time dealers who don’t pay their bills have accounted for a homicide wave on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation as the Mexican suppliers consolidate and clean out the local meth “cooks,” and put their own people and trusted locals into position to control the business. Breaking Bad in real life carnage. A commercial purge that the source says hit terrifyingly close to home. Two extended family members died in the flurry. Another acquaintance survived the culling and after more than a decade as a dealer, continues as one of three cartel contacts in Rapid City, South Dakota, with territorial responsibility for the Pine Ridge reservation. Two underlings in the village of Pine Ridge and one in Kyle, supplying a network of smaller communities. Wanblee. Manderson. Red Shirt. Porcupine. Wounded Knee. When I ask, the source gives me the name without a blink. A 30-year old Rapid City woman directly connected to one of the largest methamphetamine contacts in middle America. A man who has survived as a 20-year veteran of the meth trade, handling millions a month in transactions and supply across the upper midwest. The source doesn’t know the name. Even asking would likely raise obvious alarms.
“The shipments come every two weeks,” the source says, indicating the methamphetamine arrives to coincide with EBT and tribal benefit disbursements, when the native population has money in their pockets to buy the drug. Since the ratcheting vigilance against opioid overprescription, the “ice” business is booming.
“My friend has told me that her contact goes down to Denver and then down to southern New Mexico to meet the cartel,” the source says. “He gets the shipment, trades vehicles at location and then drives back to Denver, then to Salt Lake City. Then sometimes to Boise, Idaho and then back over into North Dakota,” the source says.
“He’s smart. He trades vehicles twice or more along the route. Always good vehicles with no problems that might cause a stop or attract attention, bad taillights or whatever. Then he comes south, back down into South Dakota. He hits Cheyenne-Eagle Butte, up in there. Then my friend meets him usually in Rapid City or in Kyle to make the pickup. They avoid Interstate 90 at all costs, because the smart cops and dogs are too good at spotting it.”
The source tells me a long string of large drug busts and a concerted effort to police Interstate 90 has forced the round-the-horn routine to avoid a route that has become known in drug circles as an expressway to prison or worse. Like their friend’s use of dozens of burner phones and the local kingpin’s multiple rotations of cars and routes, it’s just smart practice in a business where being smart is the difference between getting arrested by a drug task force or killed by the competition. Not using your own product is also on the list. The source says it’s a rule that both the 30-year old friend and the high profile dealer follow with life or death discipline. They never sample their own shit. Or, so the story goes.
“She tells me she’s just all about shuffling the paper, (making money) and that she’s too smart to get hooked on that shit,” my source says. “You get on that stuff and it’s impossible to think right. Mistakes happen too easy and that’s it. You’re dead,” the source says.
At revolving drop off points in Rapid City and in the village of Kyle on the Pine Ridge reservation, methamphetamine shipments of five, ten, twenty pounds or more are broken down into sellable portions of various sizes, from single “rocks” to several.
The source shows me a single dose glass vial (pictured) that they say has never contained a meth rock or crystal. The source has brought it as proof of their story and tells me to verify authenticity to the trade through online sources. I do some checking. It’s a direct hit. Turns out you can buy the vials online, no questions asked through several sources for pennies apiece. Low overhead and eminently more durable and “uptown” than plastic wrap.
“They have this size and then a longer, tubular one and both of those can be concealed in your body in a way police won’t find them,” the source says. The conjured images are unpleasant and uncomfortably imagined in a way that makes parts of my own anatomy wince and clench. “These ones are impossible to detect unless they can x-ray you,” the source says. “Even a thorough cavity check won’t find them.” Yeah. Ouch.
As our conversation stretches, it’s impossible not to notice the deep sorrow and regret that the source carries in describing the ways a cheap and plentiful and devilishly addictive drug has ripped through families and tribes and communities like a merciless forest fire of lost lives and devoured time and suicidal desperation to escape the clutches of what has become the chemical intoxicant of choice in coastal cities, college campuses, middle America trailer parks and everywhere in between. Police are overwhelmed but fighting back, armed with Federal grant money for task forces, new equipment and more manpower. But the progress is slow and as with everything else in the ‘Drug War,’ it all has the feeling of live action role play for fun and profit, at the expense of endless tax dollars on one side and an estimated $60-billion a year methamphetamine bullet train on the other. Next stop, your neighborhood, USA.
No matter who makes it or how it’s ingested, methamphetamine is a carnivorous and cruel mistress that chews its way through the bodies of users and family units with all the calculated coldness of a chemical serial killer born of a formula drawn up somewhere on hell’s cavern walls. A toxic waste dump in the end of a glass tube that leaves skin covered in sores and teeth rotted away under the acrid onslaught of acidic smoke. A hot rod super stimulant that hits the user’s brain like an atom bomb, juicing cerebral tissues with doses of pleasure chemicals so massive that neural connection points are burned off and shorted out, dopamine receptors are fried shut, shattering a user’s baseline “happy” brain chemistry and leaving them cursed to a permanently gray world that is devoid of the pleasures normally found in the simple moments and experiences of life. Morning sunrise. A juicy steak. Even good sex with an attractive and loving partner never feels the same again.
Over twenty-plus years watching and chronicling meth’s hideous march across American life, stories and lines from meth users are always the same. Their very first hit is better than they’ve ever felt before, or ever will again. Every moment after the ride is a futile chase for that apparitional first sensation in a satanic bargain where money, dignity, teeth, relationships and even their own children are thrown away with equal lack of concern, so long as the pipe is lit. Getting and staying clean is an exile to a tasteless life of emptiness and boredom and depression that makes suicide as frequent as staying successfully clean. Relapse is desperation just to feel normal. Or, to feel something, anything, just one more time.
As one recovering meth smoker told me years ago, “Every day that you see me is the worst day of my life. Every day is me feeling nothing, living nothing and enjoying nothing and knowing that nothing will ever feel good again. Forever.” She, like so many others unable to bear the constant pain of struggled recovery, took her own life at age 32, leaving two children to raise themselves. For the Pine Ridge native sitting in my passenger seat, it’s a familiar daily story of a generational catastrophe. Children orphaned young or abandoned to grandparents who in large numbers are spending their later years thrust back into the rigors of parenting at a time when their strength and resources are nearly gone. And all under the weight of knowing that their own adult children are lost in a world of addiction and turmoil that few will ever escape alive.
“Parents are just checking out,” the source says. “When the crystal is around, it’s time to go out, party, get high, get crazy. Chasing that drug. Chasing that feeling. They don’t care about their kids or what they’re watching or what they’re going through. It’s selfishness. And it’s ugly and sad.”
On the reservations, the source says last holdouts against the meth epidemic are waging a desperate battle to offer a different path to young people by encouraging a return to the traditional ways of native faith and culture. Burning sage and smudging, sundances, sweat lodge ceremonies and traditional drum song are comforting practices of reconnection to ancient beliefs where the physical body and the family structure are gifts from the Creator. And where children are the most sacred gift of all. People on diverging roads struggling together on opposite sides of a drug that is plentiful and cheap. Easy to find and lucrative to sell.
Cocaine is more expensive, less pure and less plentiful these days, the source tells me. There’s still a small amount of high grade stuff floating around, but it’s out of the price range for most of the market and certainly not worth melting down into crack or freebase, the more “street” versions of the coca express. Heroin and meth are where it’s at and since the replacement of the pseudoephedrine days of dirty orange and yellow ‘rock,’ with Mexican crystal, made from high quality ephedrine that’s pure as glass and kicks like a Clydesdale, addiction rates and matching supply have exploded. Mostly gone are the shake and bake meth varieties found in liter soda bottles and the amateur local cooks turning out subpar crap while burning sheds and blowing up trailer homes and sometimes themselves in the process. In the Rapid City network, the source says her friend has bragged that the size of high grade Mexican shipments and her profits are soaring by the month.
“I seen her make $8,000 in 20-minutes,” my source says. “Every two weeks just like clockwork and with more customers every single time. It’s tearing our people apart. Everyone hates the dealers and knows who they are but so many people’s family members are addicted and dying from it and people who try to say something or fight back or speak out get hurt and killed.” The source tells me they left the reservation for good to get away from both the saturated lure of the addicted population, but has seen methamphetamine traffic in Rapid City populations of both natives and whites double and double again in just the past few years.
“This is killing all of us and it’s starting younger and younger in both our people, yours and mine,” the source says. “It’s not a native problem or a poor people problem or a white problem. It’s an American problem and there ain’t enough money or cops or dogs or any of that shit to keep it from getting bigger.”
As we close our discussion, I press again for the regional contact’s name, fairly certain my source knows it by heart but is equally scared both to keep the information private or to disclose it. After a few moments of silence and chewed lips, the source offers up what I’ve asked for. I assure them I won’t do anything with it or tell anyone until they feel safe enough for me to make a call. But I’m speaking in half truths, knowing that carrying that kind of information is one of the few things in the world more stupid than putting a meth pipe in your mouth for the first time. The secret won’t keep.
“I just want to feel like I did something. I’ve known several young people who were killed in the past few years and several more who tried to kill themselves or did because they or their family members are on the shit,” the source says. “They can’t survive it and they can’t stand watching their moms or dads or uncles or brothers and sisters turning evil and twisted on that shit, either. It’s the worst drug that has ever been and we’re not beating it. It’s beating us. Killing all of us, one at a time.”
“We’re not going to win this fight. But at least I did something.”
THE RAVAGES OF LIFE CHASING THE CRYSTAL PALACE. “FACES OF METH”