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For One Small New Mexico Town, It Takes a Village to Win the War on Drugs

Drug dealing is not just a big city problem. Over the last century, as the heroin trade moved north from South and Central America, traffickers found the small village of Chimayo to be a convenient place to do business. By the 1960s, the community -- nestled in the mountains of northern New Mexico - had turned into a center for major drug deals.

"Basically in the 1980s and 1990s, we were living in a state of terror in our own village," says Chellis Glendinning, a political activist and award-winning author who lives in Chimayo. "Here was this problem going on that had to do with dealers really ruling the village, and there were throat-slitting, violence and people driving too fast, and everybody got robbed."

Chimayo became as well known for having the most heroin overdoses per capita in the United States as it was for El Santuario, the town's world-famous church where healing miracles are said to occur.

Then in the late 1990s Ms. Glendinning and her neighbors decided the time for action had come. In keeping with the spirituality of the local shrine, they were inspired by a vision. One of the community's oldest citizens, considered a grandmother to the entire village, saw a victory over the drug dealers.

"She is a very spiritual woman, and she had a vision," Ms. Glendinning says. "This was after a terrible accident in the village, where a large number of children were killed in a car accident. The driver had been using drugs and alcohol. She had the vision of a procession from another village to the Santuario right through the (drug) dealers' terrain."

More than 500 people brought that vision to life. Ms. Glendinning says their march marked the beginning of a drug war in her village.

"The police and the FBI came in and had a drug bust," she recalls. "They wiped out the three top dealers." The community regained control of the town and, Ms. Glendinning says, "now we have our first treatment center for drug addiction."

The center's recovery program is designed to be culturally relevant to the local community. Its director, Ben Tafoya, says the treatment incorporates traditional healing with standard science-based practices.

"Traditional healing, and the growing of the herbs that are needed in traditional healing, is something that has been here for the last 400 years," he says. "Northern New Mexico is a rural frontier, and there are a very few practitioners in this area. So we need to establish a better method of helping our clients when they return back to their communities. What we're hoping is that the traditional healing in the community will expand because we'll have individuals out there that will be training other individuals to use it."

Mr. Tafoya says the long-term strategy for winning the war against drugs depends on educating people and giving them the resources to take control of their lives.

"As we move forward and empower more individuals, and more communities are empowered, they will not tolerate the use of substances," he says. "I think an example of that is the organizing that has been done around Chimayo. People are fed up, saying we don't want drugs in our community and we're going to take control. It's a bottom up approach, not a top-down. The solutions are in the communities."

One of Chimayo's solutions focuses on the younger generation. Chellis Glendinning notes that, just like the treatment program, it incorporates local traditions, like a reverence for the land.

"So often the dealers were just waiting in the playground of our schools with drugs to bring the children into addiction at a very early age," she explains. "So we now have boys and girls clubs. We have after-school programs. We have field trips. And for our youngest children we have the prospect of being able to join the Earth Corps, which is a group of teenagers who are engaged in restoring the land."

Chellis Glendinning documented Chimayo's struggle against drugs in her book, Chiva: A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade. Chiva, she says, is street slang for heroin. Ms. Glendinning says battling drugs is an ongoing struggle. But her community has taken the first step and remains determined to win the fight.