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heroin with syringeA Town Called ‘H’

Beneath the shiny façade of Vista’s redevelopment lies an ugly truth

City officials in Vista say their little North County town has a lot going for it. An ambitious $75 million redevelopment project, dubbed Vista Village, is in high gear. Mayor Vance Morris calls a splashy new 15-screen movie theater that opened last November “the anchor that will revitalize downtown.”

The Vista City Council is spending $40,000 on a consultant to help the city come up with a new slogan. A recommendation is expected by June, in time for a big summer advertising campaign to promote the city as a great place to do business—and to live.

But law-enforcement officials take a different view of Vista. They see it as a hotbed of drug trafficking, particularly “black tar” heroin smuggled across the border from Mexico and distributed in Vista by Latino street gangs.

“Vista is a very busy place for a narc,” says one law-enforcement official who asked not to be identified. “It’s one of the worst places in the entire county, with more dope and more crooks than anywhere else outside of the border region.”

Misha Piastro, spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego, confirms Vista is “absolutely near the top” as far as DEA activity is concerned. And despite two big heroin busts last year and the year before—in which federal and local drug agents nabbed more than 8 pounds of Mexican black tar heroin (street value: $500,000) and made more than two dozen arrests—the problem is getting worse. “You’ve got gangs entrenched in Vista, and these days gangs and drugs are synonymous,” Piastro says. “And one of the things we’re seeing is gang members falling victim to their own crimes. Virtually all of the gang members up there are not only involved in sales of narcotics, but they’re also using them.”

In recent years, heroin has become an increasingly popular drug. And in Vista, the problem is compounded by a new channel of distribution: gangsters from Los Angeles.

“One of the things we’re seeing now is people in Vista are tied not just to people down in Mexico but also to people up in Los Angeles,” says a law-enforcement source. “So there’s a steady stream of heroin, because you’re fueling demand.”

Rick Dudley, assistant city manager for Vista, believes the problem is overstated. “It’s no worse than in any other community,” he insists. “Have you ever watched a DEA press conference? They always say the same thing—that there’s a significant problem here, and that they’re here to take care of it.”

Dudley says he’s kept close tabs on law-enforcement activity in the nearly 20 years he’s been with the city of Vista. He concedes black-tar heroin trafficking “is a rising problem in North County, including Vista,” but maintains “it’s not a significant problem. There’s nowhere in Vista where I would feel unsafe to walk alone at night.”
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