Region II Narcotics Task Force agents were watching and listening as criminal informants wearing hidden voice recorders went into a home on Bramble Street in south Farmington and purchased heroin three times in October.

Arthur Baca Jr., 25, and his mother, Joyce Estrada, lived in the home and police said Baca sold heroin to their informants.

Based on the informants' drug buys, narcotics agents obtained search warrants and raided Baca's home. They found a half-pound brick of black-tar heroin a black blob of the drug that looks like road tar and can be broken into smaller balls called "BB's" and sold on the street.

"He would deal to the dealers," said Neil Haws, director of the Region II Narcotics Task Force, the local drug-enforcement agency. "He was definitely the top heroin guy around here."

The brick had a street value of more than $20,000. It was the most heroin San Juan County narcotics agents had confiscated in a single arrest in at least 15 years and possibly ever, Haws said.

Police have seen a sharp increase in heroin use and trafficking in San Juan County in 2012.

From 2004 to 2011, Region II agents had four heroin cases and seized 68 grams of heroin, he said. So far this year, Region II agents have 16 closed and active heroin cases and have seized 277 grams of heroin, Haws said. Baca's was far and away the largest heroin bust.

Baca was arrested Oct. 24 and charged with three counts of heroin trafficking, a second-degree felony. His mother was not arrested.


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It wasn't the first time Baca and Estrada had been investigated by police.

The mother-son pair were arrested in 2006 for stabbing Baca's father, Arthur Baca, and leaving him mortally injured on the side of a road near Gallup, according to news reports. Baca pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison and Estrada was convicted of tampering with evidence and sentenced to probation, according to a state court website.

He is awaiting a preliminary hearing in Farmington Magistrate Court but police are presenting the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office in hopes that Baca could be tried in federal court, where he would be sentenced to a much longer prison sentence if convicted, Haws said.

It wasn't long after Baca's arrest before another alleged heroin dealer was arrested.

The day after police arrested Baca, Joe Gallegos, 43, was allegedly driving while he was high on heroin or another narcotic and he ran over Delandra Pioche near the intersection of Main Street and Court Avenue. Gallegos dragged the 32-year-old woman 60 feet, killing her. He fled the scene and police quickly arrested him and said he was in possession of 15.5 grams of heroin and 13.5 grams of cocaine.

He was charged with DWI homicide and drug trafficking because of the amount of drugs he was carrying.

"We're catching more users and deputies are seeing more of it," Haws said.

There is also an increasing number of people at Four Winds Recovery Center who are trying to kick a heroin habit, said Joe Earley, the clinical supervisor.

"If you can get somebody to try heroin, it's a very seductive high," he said. "It's a high you want to chase."

Though heroin users may be increasing in San Juan County, there has been a long history of people addicted to prescriptions forms of the narcotic here and in the rest of New Mexico.

Heroin is an opiate, as are prescription narcotics such as Oxycontin or Percocet.

New Mexico has the highest opiate overdose death rate in the country, at 27 deaths per 100,000 people, according to a report released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Opiate addiction has been rampant in San Juan County for a long time," said Dr. Eric Ketcham, medical director of emergency services at San Juan Regional Medical Center.

The drugs relax the user, block pain and slow a person's breathing and bowels. When people addicted to the drugs don't get their fix, the reverse happens. They become madly irritable, feel intense pain, and vomit and have diarrhea, among other side effects that come with withdrawal, he said.

The symptoms are so severe that people going through opiate withdrawal often end up in the emergency room, Ketcham said. 

Doctors can prescribe a patient drugs as they try to break an opiate addiction.

"The way that we usually treat (withdrawal) is by getting (the addict) on progressively lower doses of an extended-release opiate," Ketcham said.

He said morphine, methadone and a new drug called Buprenorphine have proven to be helpful in weaning an addict off opiates.

Ketcham said significant progress has been made in recent years to prevent people from becoming addicted to prescription opiates. Doctors have become wary of using narcotics for long-term pain management.

In addition, the New Mexico Legislature passed a law this year that created an advisory council that will review pain management practices throughout the state.

But, Haws said, the steps being taken to stop prescription drug abuse may be contributing to the rise of heroin.

"Their drug of choice may be a prescription, but that can lead to heroin because it's cheaper and easier to get," he said. "Heroin is a lot easier to get."