ANCHORAGE - Charlie Cross counted how many friends and relatives took their own lives over the years and came up with 19, all Alaska Natives.
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"Of those 19, a mere three that I know of were not consuming alcohol," Cross, an investigator with the Alaska State Troopers, said as he fought back tears. "My personal experiences with the utter devastation is what really makes me want to do the best job that I could do."
So Cross, who is part Eskimo, goes after smugglers who supply booze to villagers in Native communities where the sale, and sometimes the possession, of alcohol are prohibited.
Cross and the nine other members of the troopers' Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team work largely undercover to catch people sneaking in alcohol for their own use or to sell at huge profits in dry villages, where a fifth of hard liquor that normally costs $12 can command as much as $300.
Members of the team last year confiscated more than 1,900 bottles of illegal hard liquor destined for scores of villages. And recently, they were deputized as U.S. postal inspectors to intercept alcohol mailed over a vast roadless region of Alaska.
Alcohol smuggling has gone on in rural Alaska for generations.
People from dry villages - no alcohol permitted at all - buy booze in bigger cities such as Anchorage, Fairbanks or Juneau and bring it home in private planes, boats or snowmobiles, or they disguise it as apple juice or water, or hide it in their luggage, in diaper bags and under animal pelts.
In some of Alaska's many remote "damp" communities - where limited consumption of alcohol is OK - people can legally order booze via air delivery and then go down to the local airport to pick it up. But people frequently subvert the monthly purchase limits by ordering from multiple suppliers. And residents of dry villages can get their hands on alcohol simply by having it shipped to a damp community.
Alcohol has taken a terrible toll in Alaska. Alaska Natives have a high rate of suicide and premature death, and drinking has long been regarded as a major factor.
Alaska Natives are 16 percent of the state's population, yet accounted for 39 percent of 426 suicides recorded over a three-year period that ended in August 2006, according to the nonprofit Alaska Injury Prevention Center.
Toxicology results were available for just one-third of the suicides studied but showed the presence of alcohol and often drugs in around 70 percent of the cases for both Natives and non-Natives in rural Alaska.
Many familiar with rural Alaska say wherever there is a tragedy, near-tragedy or serious crime, alcohol is involved nine times out of 10.
"We've lost so many people to alcohol, potential leaders," said Willie Goodwin Jr., a 63-year-old hunter and Eskimo elder from Kotzebue. "Every family has been affected by alcohol, one way or another, in rural Alaska."
In hopes of undercutting the bootleggers and curbing drinking, a few damp communities have opened liquor stores or community delivery sites where alcohol orders can be picked up in tightly controlled amounts and the customers are carefully screened.
Also, under a new law, the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will establish a database in July that will help catch people who skirt the purchase limits.
"We're not plugging all the holes in the dike. We're just plugging a big one," said ABC board director Doug Griffin. "We're trying to up the ante a little bit, make it harder for bootleggers."
Barrow, a damp town of 4,500 at the edge of the oil-rich North Slope, set up a single legal pickup site for alcohol deliveries nine years ago.
It now issues 2,400 one-year permits to buy alcohol to residents who have passed criminal background checks. Permits are revoked after serious convictions, and residents have to wait as long as five years to apply again.
The town has also imposed lower alcohol purchase limits than the state's quota for damp communities. Barrow permit-holders may buy only 4 ½ liters of hard liquor a month, or less than half of the 10 ½ liters of hard liquor (or 32 bottles of wine or 128 cans of beer) allowed monthly under state law.
Suicide rates have not dramatically improved in Barrow since the delivery site opened. But "having a delivery site has had a positive impact on the abuse of alcohol," Mayor Michael Stotts said Friday.
The damp Native village of Nulato opened a liquor store in November for the same reason Tanana, another Yukon River community, did so in 1982: People were losing or risking their lives driving boats or snowmobiles in severe weather to get alcohol at the nearest liquor store.
The Tanana store maintains a list of banned customers, including those with family or mental health problems. City Manager Bear Ketzler said his best guess is that bootleg alcohol sales have dropped by half in Tanana.
The liquor store, he said, "actually in its own way does work."
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