Embedded in Austin

On the ground in one of Minnesota's meth hot spots

One of the most enduring entertainments in any small town is the local paper's police blotter. These dispatches, concise and yet somehow rambling at the same time, have always been a reliable compendium of banal events and infractions. Raccoon acting suspiciously. Police talked to residents in the 600 block of Third Street about dogs chewing up garbage. Police cited a person for burning a sofa in his yard.

You'll still find such typical and relatively benign scuttlebutt in the Austin Daily Herald--the items above are all real reports from that newspaper--but in recent years the blotter has grown longer and more confusing. Officers were notified of a large purchase of Sudafed. Man charged with possession of anhydrous ammonia in an improper container. Two men arrested for drugs and felony gun charges. Nor is the change confined to the fine-print columns. It's in the headlines, too: Meth lab arrests include a mother, her daughter. Seven face meth charges. Thefts tied to meth trade. Warning signs of meth use.

Again, these are all from the Austin Daily Herald. This is my hometown. I know this place, or I did. What the hell is going on?

 

The emergence of methamphetamine as the drug of choice round the rural Midwest happened so fast that local authorities barely registered it at first. They'd heard stories about the havoc meth was wreaking on the West Coast, but nobody figured the drug would travel so fast or put down roots so easily.

In 1994 there were three meth lab seizures in the state; in 2001, over 300. And in the little towns in southeast Minnesota--including those of Mower County, where Austin is located--the problem is especially immediate. Minnesota law enforcement has carved the state into 23 regional drug task force sectors; of the 350 Minnesota lab seizures in 2000-2001, 44 were in Mower's tiny section of the state's southeast corner. Statewide, that number was exceeded only by Anoka-Hennepin counties, with 57.

Austin and the surrounding communities did not see their first lab seizure until October 1999, but they have had their hands full ever since. In the last couple of years the county has seen high-profile federal indictments of members of a California gang that was distributing meth in the county--as well as a steady stream of arrests and lab seizures, a surge in underage treatment referrals, and a lab explosion that killed a man and resulted in two third-degree murder convictions for his accomplices.

 

Austin's not particularly rustic so far as small towns go. Maybe it's stretching things to call it a small town at all. Ninety miles south of the Twin Cities, Austin is the Mower county seat and the home of Hormel, a Fortune 500 company that is the town's main employer. Of 23,314 local residents, 1,500 are employed in the company's flagship meatpacking plant, while another 600 labor in the Hormel corporate offices. Eight hundred people--a majority of them recent immigrants--also work in the Quality Pork Processing slaughterhouse that is a Hormel offshoot.

Despite the presence of Hormel, Austin is a relatively isolated community, surrounded on all sides by farm fields and little towns. Equal parts blue-collar slaughterhouse town and modestly affluent white-collar suburb, Austin has always been a puzzling place--a company town where there were certainly haves and have-nots, but also one where class integration was more or less forced by logistic realities. The children of the folks in the corporate office went to the same schools and played on the same sports teams as the kids of the guys who labored in the blood room at the slaughterhouse.

Austin has changed drastically in the 20 years since I moved away. A wrenching Hormel strike in the mid-1980s took a toll on the city's economy that is only beginning to ease. The immigrants who have moved here in the meantime deserve a lot of the credit for adding life and vibrancy to Austin again. Main Street, once lined with empty storefronts and struggling businesses, is now home to a number of Mexican groceries and restaurants, a thriving barbecue joint, and a coffee shop. As ever, the downtown area to the east of Main Street is crowded with no-nonsense bars.

"We actually have a couple decent video stores now, a tremendous public library, and a handful of excellent restaurants," an Austin friend of mine said. "We have diversity now, and with the influx of immigrants we've also seen a new wave of kids coming into the schools. The truth is that this little town has actually become a pretty decent place to live."

And what about those meth headlines? "Maybe I'm not paying attention or I'm just being naïve," he shrugged, "but I don't think it's anything new. The bad guys are here, and they've always been here. We've always had a homegrown drug problem, and I don't buy this notion that drugs are being imported on any significant scale."

Mower County Sheriff's detective Glen Farnum begs to differ. "Meth is the scourge of the earth," Farnum said without hesitation. "It's the worst thing to come down the pipe in years. We have a hell of a problem on our hands. These dealers are like weeds; you arrest a few and a week later another batch has popped up. And you get people on this stuff and you can't get 'em off it. It's wrecking a lot of lives."

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