Tuesday, April 23, 2013



Note: a closer look at some of the people involved and how it goes on.
From a sympathetic media outlet


Inside an Arizona Drug Smuggling Gang
By Weston Phippen Thursday, Mar 7 2013

His boss had just bought the white sedan he drove; it still was
fitted with Mexican license plates. He had no insurance, and his only
identification was a fake Mexican driver's license — now tucked
against $140,000 in cash in a black backpack resting on the floor of
the vehicle's passenger side.

"Oh, shit!" Rodrigo says in Spanish into the phone, speaking to his
boss in Mexico. "I'm getting pulled over. I got to call you back."

Maybe the officers had been tailing him. Maybe, he thought, they knew
what he was up to. He steered to the side of the road and placed the
phone on the driver's side armrest.

Rodrigo is 26 years old and six feet tall. He was born in Mexico but
grew up and graduated high school in Phoenix. His Mexican features
are his dark hair and eyes. He has light skin, bordering on pale, and
often wears Ray-Ban-style glasses with clear lenses. He can switch
effortlessly between Spanish and English. His favorite band is Green
Day. Much of life is a punchline to him. When he walks into a room,
regardless whether he knows anybody, he banters with everyone and
quickly becomes, if not the center of attention, a source of comic

See the slideshow that accompanies this story.
The money in the backpack resulted from 280 pounds of marijuana he
and his uncle had just sold. The cash would return to Mexico, with
the weed heading over highways to the east, where it sells for about
$400 more per pound each 1,000 miles it travels.

One of the officers asks for his identification, and Rodrigo removes
the ID from the front pocket of his backpack. While that officer
returns to the squad car with the fake license (technically, it's
real but acquired through illegitimate means) the other questions
Rodrigo — who remembers the incident like this.:

"So, what do you do?" the officer asks.
"Oh, I'm just working at my uncle's restaurant."
"What kind of food is it?"
"Oh, it's Mexican and whatever."
"Is it any good?"
"It's the best, man. You should try it."
"So, what's in the bag?" the officer says. "You don't have any knives
or guns in there, do you?"
Rodrigo thinks, "Man, I'm fucked! What am I going to say? I'm
gambling? My ass is going straight to jail!"

He tries to remember his rights and whether they can legally search
the bag. Even after eight years in the smuggling business, he's never
thought about what he would do or say if he got caught, never built a
backstory or practiced composing himself and lying to a cop. He'd
always thought he'd just jump out of the car and haul ass.

"Oh, just some dirty clothes," he responds. "I was going to go do
some laundry over at my sister's."

Then the phone in the armrest rings, and rings.
"You wanna pick up your phone?" the officer asks. "It's ringing."

The cop leans in toward the window and stares at the caller ID. "You
have a friend named Paloma. Doesn't that mean dove?"
"Yeah. That's a nickname."
"Hold on, let me talk to him."

The officer takes the phone and asks in gringo Spanish, "Co-mo say ya-
ma tu amigo? De K calor es su car-O?"

After the officer interrogates Paloma, he hands back the phone and
the other cop returns.
"Where'd you get this license?" this officer asks.
"Oh, it's because I live over there [in Mexico]."

"How come you look white and speak English?"
"Oh, I come and go a lot. I live over there a lot. I'm just visiting."

The cops wrap up the questioning and let Rodrigo leave.

Afterward, Paloma, a calm 31-year-old Mexican who coordinates the
delivery of more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana to Phoenix each
month, calls back, and the two laugh about the officers: "Stupid
gringo policía."

Looking back on the moment, Rodrigo says, "I think [they] looked at
my appearance and probably thought I didn't look too foul or
something. If I would've looked like some foul-ass beaner, they
probably would've been digging around and shit . . . My appearance
helps a lot."

Rodrigo picks up loads and coordinates deliveries. He's a go-fer for
a gang that smuggles weed from Mexico to Phoenix. Rodrigo might spend
a day scouring auto-parts stores in the Valley, looking for shocks
for his boss' cars in Mexico, or tracking down binoculars at outdoor
stores — whatever Paloma needs. When work arrives, he meets drivers
in grocery or mall parking lots and switches cars to drive the
hundreds of pounds of weed in trunks to the stash house, which is
also home.

Rodrigo, his 19-year-old cousin Sal, his uncle Sergio, and four other
family members live in the small house on Phoenix's west side. From
the house's garage, the pot moves to wholesalers. "Most of them are
black or Jamaican," Rodrigo says. Each year, Palmona's group
distributes about 10,000 pounds of marijuana to different people who
drive it to places like Michigan, Maryland, Kentucky, and Chicago,
where it's divided into pounds, half-pounds, ounces.

Indeed, says a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report, "Most of the
marijuana and heroin that transits the Mexico-Arizona border area is
destined for [out-of-state] domestic markets, including those in East
Coast states."

Rodrigo's group is paid for bulk loads they pass on to the
wholesalers. If it's someone they've worked with for years, they
financially front the load. If not, they receive payment first.
Rodrigo's crew takes its cut and sends the rest back to Paloma in
Mexico. He takes his cut and uses the rest to buy the merchandise
that keeps the $500,000-a-year business rolling.

No one in the group carries a gun; none has teardrop tattoos or
dresses in shirts that reach their knees. They're a small operation,
a tiny part of marijuana smuggling from Mexico, which Los Angeles'
RAND Drug Policy Research Center says is a $2 billion-a-year business

Rodrigo, Sergio, and Paloma were born or grew up in a small Mexican
city in the state of Chihuahua a few hours south of the border. It's
a family business. Paloma isn't related; he's a family friend, but
he's the pápi of the group. About 10 others work in the operation:
backpackers, lookouts, those who drive packed weed from southern
Arizona after it has crossed the border.

Rodrigo works directly with Sal and Sergio. The men who pick up and
drive the weed and deliver it to the stash house might be friends of
theirs or friends of people they've worked with, but they typically
won't know who they're dealing with until a shipment arrives.

Paloma manages the operation. In a business where asking questions is
grounds for dismissal, Paloma oversees the smuggling process to
Phoenix, passing along appropriate phone numbers and making certain
that each cog in the operation does what it's paid to do, when it's
paid to do it.

The government calls operations like Paloma's "drug trafficking
organizations," the tone of which sounds as if such endeavors are
formalized from a cartel boss on down. But the groups that Paloma
works with are more like floating subcontractors connected only by

Forty percent to 67 percent of all weed in the United States comes
from Mexico, according to the RAND Center. It's typically called
"commercial grade," contains stems and seeds, and — when it comes to
Arizona — is supplied by the Sinaloa Cartel.

"Sinaloa . . . exploits well-established routes in Arizona and [has]
perfected smuggling methods to supply drug-distribution networks
located throughout the United States," states the federal High
Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, a coalition of federal and
local agencies.

Asked whether she knows how many groups like Paloma's operate in
Arizona, Ramona Sanchez, special agent with the Drug Enforcement
Agency in Phoenix, says, "Not really. We've made several operational
take-downs. We've taken down several people with connections to the
Sinaloa Cartel."

Sanchez defines a "connection" to the Sinaloa Cartel as someone
merchandising dope bought from the cartel. And since almost all the
pot in Arizona comes from the Sinaloans, does Paloma's group work for
the cartel? Does a dealer who's slinging sacks on the corner?

Sanchez and many government reports acknowledge that subcontractor
groups such as Paloma's have no direct link to the cartel, but this
doesn't stop certain law enforcement from calling every Mexican
carrying a load of weed through the desert a cartel member.

Aside from buying about $250,000 worth of weed each month from the
cartel, Rodrigo and Paloma say they have no other connection to it.
Paloma says his group seldom has resorted to violence, but he admits
that it he is part of an industry where murder, torture, and
kidnapping are tools.

In their minds, Paloma and his gang move a product demanded by U.S.
customers — a product that supports Sergio's three children and
Paloma's family and subsidizes his clothing shop. As for Rodrigo, if
he can manage to start saving some of his earnings, he wants to
someday open a restaurant in Phoenix — or maybe a strip club.

Rodrigo wakes at 9:30 on a warm winter morning. "Fuckin' Paloma calls
me at this time every day just to bug the shit out of me."

Paloma keeps tabs on Rodrigo, gives him hell when he's hung over on a
weekday, and disapproves when he learns that Rodrigo has snorted
cocaine. Rodrigo reveres Paloma, but he thinks he's a prig. Paloma
says he's looking out for Rodrigo.

Later that day, Rodrigo wires $800 to Mexico from a pawn shop, which
he prefers over Western Union because it saves him money. After that,
he pays Paloma's phone bill at a Boost Mobile store and returns home
to waits for his uncle.

The white stucco house with a Spanish tile roof has three bedrooms.
It's littered with Barbie dolls for Sergio's daughter. There's a
crack in the ceiling of the living room, where they watch Spanish
novelas on a stolen flat-screen TV.

Sergio's wife keeps the white refrigerator stocked; atop it sits a
Cookie Monster cookie jar. At Christmas, Sergio paid a neighborhood
tweaker $10 to hang lights on the house. In the garage, there are two
white freezer boxes. One is filled with Red Baron pizza, and the
other contains an old 20-pound brick of marijuana.

The garage is crucial for any smuggling operation: Car pulls in with
dope, garage door closes, dope is unloaded, car leaves. Another car
pulls in later, dope is loaded, and away it goes.

The smuggling business involves lots of waiting around — thank God
for PlayStation. But when a load arrives, Rodrigo and his uncle and
cousin can move a few hundred pounds of marijuana in and out of the
garage in no more than a couple of days.

It has been nearly a month since the last load arrived. It's time for
a little side work.

Sergio, a thick 37-year-old with a mustache and short black hair,
piles into his silver truck with Rodrigo. His daughter's empty baby
stroller is in the back. Sergio barely says a word unless it's on the
phone. He talks with people who want weed but can't find it, who have
it but can't get rid of it, and friends who want small amounts.

A squawking phone is something Sergio, Paloma, and Rodrigo have in

As Sergio and Rodrigo near Seventh Street and McDowell Road, Sergio
arranges a meeting, parks at a Sonic restaurant next to an outdoor
intercom, and orders cherry limeades.

A black Lincoln Navigator parks at the intercom to the right. Sergio
knows a man with more weed than he can get rid of, so he agrees to
buy a couple of hundred pounds at $535 a pound. The plan is to turn
around and sell it to the guy in the Navigator for about $555.

"You know, it's not even worth it," Rodrigo says of the side deal and
others like it. They might make $20 a pound total from this deal, but
they'll have to haggle with the sellers and buyers. And it's a lot

"Yeah, but we got to do something," Sergio says.

When weed comes in from Paloma, there's far more money at stake.
Sergio makes about $10 a pound; Rodrigo's cut would be about $7 a
pound. Rodrigo alone generally makes about $2,000 for 300 pounds.

A Hispanic man wearing a black shirt and jean shorts leans over the
passenger's-side window of Sergio's truck, looking nervously about.
In plain sight, Sergio passes him a mason jar with a sample nugget
the size of a plum, eliciting a jittery smile from Navigator man. It
used to be that when they came to meetings like this, they'd break
off a piece of a 20-pound bale and give it to the guy. Now, Sergio
and Rodrigo won't even let the Navigator guy take the nug out of the
mason jar. He has to unscrew the lid and sniff it.

"Fuck, man, we're in a recession," Rodrigo says sarcastically.

Rodrigo met Paloma through Sergio, whose family has been involved in
the drug trade in Chihuahua for a long time. Rodrigo grew up in
several homes in Mexico and around Phoenix. When Rodrigo was young,
his father and mother split up, and Sergio — his uncle through
marriage — had a hand in "kidnapping" Rodrigo from his father so his
mother could have him. After that, Sergio took Rodrigo and his mother
into his house on the west side.

When your family owns a bakery, you become a baker. Rodrigo's new
family ran drugs.

During high school in Central Phoenix, Rodrigo and his friends sold
shake they found in used plastic that had wrapped marijuana bales.
Sometimes they pilfered leftover nugs and sold them. Paloma hung
around Sergio's house to check on things, and sometimes he would pick
up Rodrigo from school. Rodrigo shuttled money for a bit: He'd drive
from Phoenix to a house in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with cash stuffed
in propane tanks. "One time I took half a million," he brags. Paloma
slowly gave Rodrigo more responsibility, and their relationship grew.
Now they talk a lot; when Rodrigo was in jail for an old bench
warrant last year, Paloma bailed him out.

Sergio and the buyer in the Navigator set a 7 a.m. meeting to pick up
the weed, and he and Rodrigo drive away. With his left hand on the
wheel, Sergio reaches into his khaki cargo pants pocket, pinches a
bit of coke between his thumb and index finger and takes a succession
of loud sniffs.

"Today is Friday, man," Rodrigo says, meaning it's still the work week.

"Whatever," Sergio replies. "Every day is the same: Sun goes up and
fucking sets in same place."

"Say that to the guys who wake up at 8 everyday and get off at 5,"
Rodrigo says.

"To me, every day is Saturday," Sergio responds, as he drives toward
the stash house also known as home.

A few days later, 400 pounds of pot on its way to their house is
caught by authorities 20 minutes north of Tombstone. But, soon after,
200 pounds makes it to their garage, having started its U.S. journey
at the border in Cochise County.

The border fence is 12 feet tall a few miles east of Naco in Cochise
County: One portion has rounded poles the thickness of fence posts
and gaps of equal size. The other is wire mesh. The poles have shiny
slick marks from the shoes of Mexicans who have slid down. And for
those climbing the mesh fence, "All they had to do was use
screwdrivers [to go up and over]," says Detective Daniel Romero of
the Cochise County Sheriff's Office. "It was no issue."

Romero has worked in law enforcement for 24 years, 15 of it in this
border county. He's a member of his office's eight-deputy Narcotics
Enforcement Team, some of whom work with U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement or the DEA. Romero's ancestors hail from Central Mexico,
and the frustration of trying to defend the United States from
contraband doesn't invade his soft, matter-of-fact voice.

As a narcotics agent, Romero mostly interdicts marijuana loads. In
2010, marijuana seized along the southwestern U.S. border accounted
for 96 percent of what was confiscated nationwide. Half of it was
nabbed in Arizona. Smugglers come at all hours: Two days earlier,
Romero busted a car carrying 200 pounds of pot at 1:30 in the
afternoon. Broad daylight. A day before that, a golfer playing the
fifth hole at the Turquoise Valley Golf course in Naco reported a
troupe of packers as they scudded through a wash — just a chip shot

"We'd like to tell you that there are certain times of the day when
they do it most," Romero says. "But it's all the time. They go when
they're ready."

Most of the smuggling action is near milepost six, which authorities
call "The Seam," halfway between Naco and Douglas. Romero drives his
Silver Chevy truck, with an M4 carbine and a shotgun where the drink
holders should be, along a dirt road beside the border fence. Up
close, the desert here is anything but level; it's streaked with
washes and has dense grass several feet high, boulders, and creosote
bushes so thick that if a smuggler wanted to hide from pursuing
authorities, he'd simply need to bend over and scurry off like a
jackrabbit to vanish.

"It's hard to find them if they get into this stuff," Romero says.

As Romero stands atop a hill, he focuses the dial of his $1,200
Vortex Razor binoculars at a faded, white tarp flapping in the wind.
On the Mexican side of the border is a lookout bivouac that's manned,
Romero thinks, 24 hours a day. A smuggler might be up there right
now, he says, staring back at him while communicating to a boss in a
nearby town.

Paloma's home is not far from the bald hill where Romero stands. In
the Mexican town where he lives, Paloma shares a sparse, tile-
floored, two-bedroom house with a friend. He keeps almost an entire
butchered cow, including head, in his freezer. He has a propane space
heater and spends hours perusing Phoenix Craigslist posts, searching
for random items that Rodrigo will have to pick up.

Paloma has dark skin and the build of an athlete gone a bit doughy.
He wears jeans and shirts with collars and the brand names stamped on
the chest. His haircut could be described as faux-hawk. He can be
taciturn and stern. But, among friends, this gives way to a smile and
a cackling laugh.

Although his SUV is conspicuously shiny compared to the many beaters
in town, Paloma tries to keep a low profile. Years ago, he got into
an argument at a bar, and his adversary smashed a beer bottle against
Paloma's face. He decided to walk away. You never know who might have
connections. If he'd wanted revenge, Paloma says, he knows a few
people who could have kidnapped or killed his assailant.

Working as a smuggler means he must live away from his wife and
daughter, whom he shows off in cell-phone pictures. Paloma hates the
town he lives in. He's building his family a house in his hometown,
where he visits them nearly every week. During work, he lives like a
bachelor: bland Chinese food, sweet bread from a gas station, hot
dogs from street vendors.

A walkie-talkie in his kitchen sounds off with the voices of
associates. Either Paloma or his roommate carries the radio to lunch,
dinner, and on trips around town, holding it closely to their ears at
times. With the radio and his phone, Paloma tracks each leg of his
dope's trip north, starting with the backpackers who slip across the
fence and attempt to evade the Border Patrol (or whatever agency is
on duty), each packer carrying two or three 20-pound bales of weed.

Nearly all drug seizures outside points of entry in Arizona and New
Mexico involve marijuana. And more than 90 percent of the seizures
are from smugglers on foot. Backpackers generally work in teams. Each
squad has a leader, who may carry a few bales himself, getting paid
about $1,000 for each operation. Authorities call these men FTOs, or
field-training officers. Typically, an FTO has worked in the
smuggling business for many years and knows about hideouts, Border
Patrol shift changes, and how to get by thermal-vision cameras that
enable agents to see about eight miles.

Once the backpackers cross the border fence, the lead packer
communicates on a disposable phone to men posted on hills who relay
warnings, locations of authorities, and all-clear signals. In some
spots, it's four miles of stop-and-gos from the border fence to State
Route 80, a favored smuggling highway that connects Douglas to Bisbee.

Paloma sends his lead backpacker the phone number of a driver who
will pick up the load in the area. The driver will pull off to the
side of the highway or down a dirt path that connects ranches and
homes in the area. The packers hide in bushes. With the deft speed of
a racetrack pit crew, they can load 200 pounds of marijuana into the
trunk of a compact car and send it on its way in about 30 seconds.

"[Authorities] do what they can, but because of the terrain, they
can't stop the [vast majority of] it," Romero says. "And that's a
fact. You'd have to constantly have thousands of guys working this
area all the time."

The driver might backtrack to Douglas and let the weed lie low at a
stash house; he might circuitously make his way northwest on smaller
highways. Or, sometimes, the driver will head through Bisbee on State
Route 80 and past a Border Patrol checkpoint near Tombstone. Although
this route is through a checkpoint, it's the quickest path to the
carotid artery of smuggling, Interstate 10.

The Border Patrol caught the 400 pounds of pot headed to Rodrigo and
his uncle's house along SR 80 just days after he and Sergio met with
Navigator man for the side deal. Sensing that he was about to get
caught, the driver stopped his Dodge Durango north of the Tombstone
checkpoint and vanished into the night, leaving the weed behind.

It was on SR 80, as well — although along the eastbound portion that
runs through New Mexico — that the Border Patrol busted two of
Rodrigo's close friends in 2005. One is Sergio's nephew, the other
Rodrigo's high school pal. Rodrigo's pal hadn't been out of school
more than a year.

The Border Patrol pulled over the two to perform an "immigration
check," and a K-9 dog went crazy. This led to 260 pounds in the trunk
of the sedan. Originally, the pair only had been supposed to scout
the road ahead and watch for authorities, for which they each were to
be paid $800, plus expenses. But when they pulled up to the rally
point, the packers stuffed the trunk and told them they'd have to
drive on with the product.

Rodrigo can't help feeling responsible, blaming himself for getting
his friend involved. His buddy was sentenced to 30 months in prison
and four years' supervised release.

Authorities aren't the only ones Rodrigo and the team worry will take
their product. In recent years, rip crews, or bajadores, increasingly
have preyed upon smuggling units. Rodrigo speaks of these rip crews
as subhuman parasites. It's one thing if the authorities intercept a
load, because this is written off as a cost of doing business. But if
a rip crew steals a load, it's the carrier's responsibility, and he
must foot the bill.

This happened to Rodrigo when someone he'd worked with and trusted
for years ran off with 200 pounds of product. Rodrigo still owes
$70,000 for this misfortune and pays off the debt monthly to Paloma.

There's a code of ethics among most of the criminals who smuggle
marijuana into the United States — which is why, when thieves stole
from his gang, the normally cool-headed Paloma vowed, "We're going to
kidnap those motherfuckers!"

Two men they'd worked with in the past had recommended a man to
shuttle a load. As soon as the driver picked it up and drove away, he
stopped answering Paloma's phone calls. Thinking it might be a scam
perpetrated by the two men who'd recommended the driver, Rodrigo
arranged a meeting between himself, Paloma, and the pair to chat on
neutral ground: Chandler Fashion Center. They talked in the food
court, and as the four walked outside toward the parking lot, two
guys hired by Paloma pressed guns against the suspected thieves' backs.

Rodrigo drove as the duo was ushered to the Red Roof Inn near 51st
Avenue and McDowell, through the motel's double doors, past the
complimentary coffee stand, and down a carpeted hallway into a room.

"We fed them," Rodrigo says. "We were decent."

Paloma and Rodrigo left, and the hired men held the thieves. The
kidnappers were local hoods, not professionals. Threatening violence,
they insisted that the men were responsible for the lost load and
that it better be returned. It never was, but Paloma decided to let
the pair survive uninjured, figuring that if they were the thieves,
they'd never have the nerve to cross his people again.

"I didn't feel that bad about it because we didn't hurt those guys,"
Rodrigo says. "It was just something we had to do. It was just part
of the business."

Rodrigo is sipping on soup at a family member's apartment on
Phoenix's east side when his phone rings. For weeks, he's been
waiting for a load, and one has arrived.

The night sky is clear and the moon half-full when Rodrigo pulls up
in the quiet neighborhood where he and his family live. His uncle,
cousin, and the men who drove the weed from down south shuffle on the
driveway beneath the switched-off Christmas lights. The carrier car,
loaded with 200 pounds of marijuana, is in the garage.

Normally, Rodrigo would meet the person who brought the weed to
Phoenix in a parking lot, take the man's keys, drive the bales
himself to Sergio's garage, unload it, and write down the weight of
each brick, to the hundredth of a pound, in his notebook. But Rodrigo
and his uncle have worked with these men for a long time.

The dope eventually is driven to a stash house in Scottsdale operated
by men who move loads east.

The next morning, Rodrigo and his cousin, Sal, sit at the kitchen
table and divvy up the $100,000 they were paid for the drugs. Each
takes his cut, and then they bundle the remaining cash in Glad
ClingWrap into $5,000 stacks — each marked with a "5" — to be driven
to Paloma in Mexico.

Rodrigo doesn't know how long he and the others can last in the
smuggling trade.

For Paloma, there's a reduced threat of getting gunned down on the
streets of one of his towns because violence has calmed in northern
Mexico — maybe, his gang believes, because the Sinaloa Cartel has
reasserted itself as the feared, dominant force there. It pays to be
doing business with the jefes in control.

Rodrigo wonders what he'll do after this phase of his life ends. He
worked for a while in a restaurant, learning the ropes, in the hope
that his dream of owning one might someday be realized.

For now, when he meets a girl and she asks what does for a living, he
says, "I work with money." The well-spoken Rodrigo sometimes goes on
that he works in a bank, because, he says with a sigh, no decent girl
wants to date a drug dealer.


No comments:

Post a Comment