City of Coke

Cocaine from Mexico is the currency that drives gangster economics

"Now we had all these wetbacks coming into our barrio, which, normally, you know, we'd fight those guys just for being there. There was a lot of guys talking about doing something to [the newcomers]. You know, getting rid of them, doing whatever it takes."

The gang's veteranos, older members who had served time in prison, set the younger ones straight: The gang would leave the Mexicans alone in return for a "tribute" of several thousand dollars a month, which would go to the gang's members in prison and their families outside. Arrangements were made through the brother-in-law.

"Still, it was fucked-up, because, you know, now we have to let all these wetback assholes come into [the barrio]. If they had done one thing, bro. If they had thrown up one sign or one little bit of graffiti, it would have blown up."

Jordin Isip
Jordin Isip

But they didn't, and a page was turned.

For decades, the barrio had been home to successive generations of the same extended families, and the gang had exerted total control over illegal business within those families. Now, one of the gang's fundamental traditions had been subverted in the name of drug profits for its elders.

Lobo says the ground-breaking Mexicans left after a few months; he doesn't know why they departed or where they went. He just knows more came. The Sinaloans he deals with, the most recent arrivals, have been in the barrio for almost a year. He says there are six of them who rotate between the two drop houses, each of which receives one or two loads of cocaine a month on an irregular schedule. Lobo has no idea how much cocaine comes into the drop-off points or how long it's there before it's shipped out, or where it goes. He has no desire to ask. (A similar safe house busted near the state capitol in September held 977 kilograms of cocaine, a record for Arizona drug raids).

Lobo says the Sinaloans are responsible for guarding and repackaging the loads of cocaine, and are paid with a cut of the product. They need Lobo, or someone like him, to convert their payment to cash.

There is still a tribute arrangement between the Sinaloans and Lobo's gang, but with changes to the script. The Sinaloans pay no tribute to anyone. The tax falls solely upon Lobo. Of the $8,000 in profit he will make at the close of trading today, he will immediately kick back half, $4,000, to his gang's veteranos, most of whom are also members of the New Mexican Mafia, a prison-based narcotics syndicate.

Such profit-sharing contracts have become a fact of street life as the Mexican Mafia has grown in power and deepened its involvement in drug trafficking.

"The way it works is this," says Todd Gerrish of the Department of Corrections. "Say you're a member of the Ninth Street gang in Garfield, and you go to prison and do six years for selling drugs, and during that six years you're brought into the Mexican Mafia. Now, when you get out, you may go back into the old neighborhood. But when you get there, you're not going to just take your old place doing business for the Ninth Street Gang. You're going to come out an upper-hierarchy member of Ninth Street, and you're going to use Ninth Street to do business for the Mexican Mafia. Membership in your old gang is subservient to your membership in New Eme.

"So, basically, we have a situation now where guys in different gangs all over the Valley are running franchise operations for the Mexican Mafia."

The first major bust of such a New Eme franchise was three years ago in Glendale, where police took down a network in which Sinaloan Cowboys were selling heroin, cocaine and marijuana to members of the Mexican Mafia and two other Glendale street gangs. Thirty-five gang members were arrested, including one member of the Grandel 52 gang who, as undercover officers watched, sold black tar heroin from a card table in his carport, with a line down the driveway.

More recently, in February 1998, the Phoenix Police Department and the FBI's Violent Street Gang Task Force dropped the curtain on Operation Taxation, an eight-month investigation into the Carbajal faction of the East Side Ninth Street gang. (East Side Ninth Street has been active in the downtown Garfield neighborhood since the late 1970s; the gang split into separate hostile factions following a New Year's Eve 1993 shooting in pro boxer and reputed gang member Michael Carbajal's front yard, where one Ninth Street gang member blew another away.)

Operation Taxation focused upon the Carbajal faction's drug trafficking and widespread extortion of Garfield residents, especially small-time drug dealers from Mexico. ("Carbajal faction" is a law-enforcement term; no one named Carbajal was arrested as a result of the investigation.) In one incident detailed in court records, Ninth Streeter Phillip "Little Bullet" Camou, 17 at the time, broke into the home of a local dealer who had fallen behind in his payments, pistol-whipped the dealer's girlfriend, then forced her to perform oral sex on a fellow gang member.

Camou was the youngest of the 20 gang members charged with various multiple felonies in the Operation Taxation roundup, two of whom were felons in their mid-30s suspected to be members of the Mexican Mafia. He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault in exchange for the rape assault being dropped. In May, Camou penned a letter from Madison Street Jail to the judge who would sentence him a week later.

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