The true lives of low-level drug dealers: “What’s the point of surviving if you can’t live?”

"Breaking Bad" this ain't: The real world of drug dealing is less flashy than TV — and much more complicated

Topics: War on Drugs, Breaking Bad, Drug Dealing, DEA, Law enforcement, Editor's Picks, ,

The true lives of low-level drug dealers: "What's the point of surviving if you can't live?"Bryan Cranston as Walter White in "Breaking Bad" (Credit: AMC/Ursula Coyote)
Editor's note: A number of drug dealers were interviewed over the course of reporting this article. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.

Quality cocaine has a sheen to it, like the paint on a lowrider. Shorts, a drug dealer in Albuquerque, flicks a clump with his nail to show me.

“See?” he says. “Like fish scales.” I’m watching him measure out $20 and $40 bags using a metal, digital scale and two business cards. He’s bent one card into a trough and uses the other to scoop up the blow. Two lines he has set aside for himself, from “the good shit.” The good shit we just picked up in a diner parking lot, from a kid in a black Honda Civic. No rims, no underbody glow, 4-door, nothing fancy. Maybe in a place more prosperous than Albuquerque, flashy cars would blend right in, but when parking lots, alleys, and gas stations are your office, it’s best to have transport that seems just like everybody else’s. We’re in a old Subaru wagon.

As Rico, another dealer, tells me, “You have to maintain appearances.”

Rico works a full-time job and only deals as much as he can reasonably use or hide. He lives in the the same small house he’s lived in for 12 years, in a down-and-out part of Albuquerque that recently began to “yuppify,” as he puts it.

“I’m not trying to be some rich guy. I’m just trying to get money to enjoy myself. Real-world jobs don’t allow people to do that. I think that’s why a lot of people sell drugs,” Rico says.

His “real-world job” pays a few bucks more than minimum wage. He says that it’s just enough to pay bills and occasionally go out. “You don’t make enough money to do anything: Travel, get your car fixed up. Naw.” He explains that when an hour’s work at minimum wage buys you two gallons of gas, and you spend a gallon each day getting to work, the choice becomes pretty clear. “It’s almost like you work to go to work,” Rico says. “I wanted something else.”

Mention “Albuquerque” and “drugs,” and chances are someone will squeal “Breaking Bad!” Walter White’s transformation from a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher to a successful drug lord made great TV, but for most dealers here in Albuquerque, selling will never be so bloody, nor so profitable. They are cogs in a multi-billion dollar industry. (The United Nations estimates that the drug trade generates $600 billion per year. If the drug trade were its own country, this would put its GDP somewhere between Saudi Arabia and Switzerland.)

And, like any other Fortune 500 company, there is little opportunity for the lower-level employees to rise to its upper echelons. Finn Selander, a former DEA agent, puts it this way: “There is almost zero chance any of these men will end up an Escobar.”

These men don’t belong to cartels or gangs. They’ve never murdered or physically hurt anyone while selling drugs. They don’t keep guns. With the exception of Shorts, they’ve never been arrested. Each of the dealers I spoke with said that they began selling drugs when they realized that there was no way their jobs would allow them to do what they wanted to do.

Selander sees it as a larger societal problem. “Try to raise a family working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart. Try to buy a house.”

While dealing is not significantly more lucrative — economic researchers report that independent drug dealers make, on average, $20,000-to-$30,000 a year – being self-employed offers these men a freedom unavailable to them at a normal job. Working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart puts them at the mercy of a system that will ruthlessly replace them should they break any of its rules. Drug dealing, they say, allows them to set their own priorities and schedules.

Shorts had three jobs when he first moved to Albuquerque, doing menial work for the city and in restaurants. “I turned to hustlin’ because it was easy. I saw that it was easy,” he says. “I got wore out working all the time and never getting anywhere.”

“I’m not lazy,” he continues. “They call it hustling for a reason!” He cackles. “But I ain’t dumb enough to wear myself out making someone else money.”

* * *

Shorts sold meth for a short time,  he told me, but complains that the people he sold to were unable to wait, and liable to do something crazy. He prefers to deal only with professionals — and, he says, the professionals do cocaine.

“I like to sell to the lawyers, the doctors, you know, people who have something to lose.”

The doctors and lawyers come into the bar where I’ve met Shorts, and I watch them from a distance. I hear them talking about the lines they’re doing or have done, about waking up still fucked up, about 36-hour shifts at the hospital. The drugs ease the stress of lost cases and long shifts. The drugs help them keep up or wind down, make them feel pepped up, ready to go.

Or the drugs make them feel adventurous, post-paperwork. Get a few drinks in ‘em, and these Whole Foods shoppers and REI members, these anesthesiologists, marketers, and engineers, start swapping stories about their exploits. Hearing them talk, you might even think the drugs were legal.

Remember that crazy time we took acid in Moab, that full moon on Molly in Thailand, that night you fell asleep in a park after a whole night of cocaine and car bombs in San Francisco? Duuuuude.

And like the iPhones they’re holding that were put together in Chinese factories, and the clothes they bought at Urban Outfitters that were sewn in sweatshops, they don’t think about how that neat baggy of powder, printed with Batman logos or Playboy bunnies, got to them. Got to us.

Because, in all likelihood, they are not the people who will go to jail for painstakingly measuring out the six-tenths of a gram that fills just a corner of these bags. They aren’t the ones who will die transporting the product from South America.

“The cartels run the odds,” Mark, a former APD narcotics officer, told me. “If they send 10 trucks or 10 mules across the border, and four get caught, they still get six across.” The people driving the trucks who end up spending years in jail? The women with baggies in their stomachs that leak? Too bad. They knew the risks. 

So the diversions of the more fortunate are supplied by others’ need to survive. Or their desire to not just get by, but prosper. To not worry about how to both buy food and pay rent. To have money to buy a car, a house, to travel.

“Everybody does drugs, but it’s the poor who go to jail for it, ” another dealer, named Cruz, told me.

Cruz had grown up broke. At one point, he, his mom and his brother were living on $9,800 a year. “We tried to go through the bank. No financial institutions would lend to us, because we didn’t have repossess-able assets.”

Without the money Cruz made selling drugs, he never could have opened his legal, and so far successful, business. Once he had the money he needed, he stopped selling blow. When I asked him why, he told me, “If you don’t get addicted to the drugs, you get addicted to the money.”

* * *

Over and over I hear this, from dealers and narcotics officers alike: it’s the money. It all comes down to the money. Maybe that’s obvious when speaking of drug trafficking, a profession encrusted in the popular imagination in $100 bills and iridescent ’64 Impalas. Millions of hit albums have bragged, truthfully or not, about Benzes and gold chains bought with drug profits. Prohibition, among other things, is good for business.

“The drug lords don’t want [drugs] legalized,” Selander explains, “because it would reduce their profits.” A 2012 study by the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness concluded that if weed were made legal in just three American states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — Mexican cartels would lose $4.6 billion dollars.

But it’s not only criminals that profit. Selander points out that law enforcement agencies would lose millions of dollars and thousands of jobs should the drug war end. “Yes, there is a lot of money on the black market. But there is also a lot of money for those agencies working drugs.”

The federal agencies who hold $1.6 billion in seized assets; the local police forces that make millions off confiscated cash, property and cars; the lucrative private prisons fed by drug convictions? All of them stand to lose millions if drugs are made legal.

Rico puts it this way: “They don’t care about anyone on the streets. They care about getting their pocket money.”

According to Mark, a former cop who worked narcotics for 18 years, the Albuquerque Police Department — like many local police departments — counts on asset seizures to increase its budgets. He said that when he was an officer, the emphasis was on property seizures rather than drug seizures, because the department could then use the profits to buy equipment and cars. Such forfeitures happen before the suspect is convicted, meaning that even if they are innocent, they can still lose their property. The average amount seized annually by police departments of APD’s size is worth more than a million dollars, according to a 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.

Another officer — who asked to remain anonymous because he was violating department policy by speaking to me without supervisor approval — told me that he had left narcotics for a different unit because he felt uncomfortable with the tactics. As a devout Christian, the deceit that surrounded undercover investigations seemed wrong to him.

He admits that the war on drugs isn’t effective, and he acknowledges that the current system often targets the poor and powerless, but argues that even if drugs are legalized, people will still commit crimes to get the money to buy drugs.

What, then, would be effective?

He turns and looks out the window. “A lot of the people I saw, they’re living in the slums or down and out, and the only thing they have to make them feel good is that high. You’d have to get them out of that situation — out of being poor, with nowhere to go — to fix it. And that’s maybe harder than getting them off drugs.”

Selander, the former DEA agent, now works with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group comprised of former criminal justice professionals who now support legalization. Working as an agent in Miami and then Albuquerque, he was involved in landmark drug cases, including evidence gathering against former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

He argues that legalization will undermine both corruption and cartel activity, as well as facilitate treatment for the addiction-fueled horrors that drug officers see first-hand.

“The big operations moved to Mexico. It’s a joke. We closed a bunch of mom-and-pop labs — just making enough for themselves, maybe a few friends — now they’re in jail. They’d be better off in rehab.”

But even Rico has his doubts about legalization, though in many ways it would make his life easier. “Yeah, it’d be great if you could just buy whatever you wanted. But even if the government made a bunch of money taxing it, they wouldn’t use that money to help people. They’d use it to fund wars.”

Rico subscribes to the feeds of several purported cartel members on Instagram. We sit on his couch and flip through them. One is, reportedly, the nephew of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and one of the richest men in the world. There are pictures on yachts, and of driving Lamborghinis, a picture with Paris Hilton, but the man’s face is blurred out in all of them. All the pleasures money can buy, but also, always, fear and worry, always the blurred-out face. “I don’t know if I’d want to live that life,” he says. “I’m paranoid as it is. But I’m fascinated by it.”

“Honestly,” Rico tells me, “If I made more money, I wouldn’t do it.”

He pauses.

“I mean, that’s why so many people are willing to run the risk. What’s the point of surviving if you can’t live?”

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