City of Coke

Cocaine from Mexico is the currency that drives gangster economics

As he works, Lobo laughs about the Mexican Mafia's kickback system for drug dealers, which he calls "gangbanger's social security."

He says he doesn't resent giving up half his profits to men who do nothing. He knows if he gets busted and goes to prison, his family will have food, and he will have plenty of money in his prison account to buy sodas and chips from the commissary. Money earned by whomever takes his place.

Prison isn't part of Lobo's long-term plan, though. He hopes never to recoup the benefits he now pays into a system that assumes that sooner or later, everyone gets busted. Lobo just wants to earn enough money for the Mexican Mafia that when he decides to take himself out of the game, the local branch of Eme will let him retire in peace. Retire from drug dealing, that is. There is no retiring from his gang.

"It's a life thing," he says.

But the gang has served Lobo well. He has a band of warriors at his beck and call. He has a new house, and, soon, enough cash to go into business for himself. Legitimate business. Something with cars. Window tinting, maybe, or a detailing shop specializing in custom paint jobs. Whatever it is, he says, it's sure to be harder work than dealing drugs to other gang members.

"This shit is the easiest job I'll ever have," Lobo says of selling coke. Ask any Mexican dishwasher who makes 10 times his hourly wage dealing grams to customers out of the kitchen.

"You don't need to be a salesman to get rid of drugs, bro. Drugs sell themselves."

And no one in the world buys and does more drugs than Americans. We have a long-established, never-ending jones for getting high.

Mexican smugglers have been this country's supplier of heroin and marijuana for more than 50 years. Their role began to expand in the early 1980s, when Colombian drug lords hired the leaders of Mexico's fledgling cartels to use their pre-established smuggling routes and methods to get cocaine into the country. The Colombians re-claimed the shipments on the U.S. side of the border, and paid the Mexicans $1,500 to $2,000 per kilogram for this service.

Then, early in this decade, the Colombians began to pay in cocaine instead of dollars, and the Mexicans began to smuggle their own coke and set up their own distribution rings in this country, and reap greater profits.

Competing Mexican cartels were further empowered by the imprisonment and death of several Colombian drug lords in the mid-'90s. An International Narcotics Control Strategy report issued by the U.S. State Department in 1997 read: "Mexico now rivals Colombia as the center of the Western Hemisphere drug trade. Mexican drug syndicates are dividing up territory with the remaining Colombian organizations, gradually assuming responsibility for the wholesale distribution of cocaine in the United States. Every day, deals are being made between Mexican drug lords and their surrogates in the United States."

That same year, 5.3 tons of cocaine were seized in a Tucson warehouse rented by a cell of Mexican smugglers connected to Amando Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juarez drug cartel. According to a later State Department report, those smugglers were selling cocaine to street gangs in Tucson, Phoenix, New York and Detroit.

Later in 1997, Carrillo Fuentes died during plastic surgery, touching off a vicious narcotraficante war when his former partner, Rafael Munoz Tralavera, joined forces with the Tijuana-based Arrellano Felix cartel to challenge Amando's brother Vicente for control of borderland cocaine smuggling. That war continues today. Meanwhile, a recent DEA report detailed new evidence that both cartels are cutting out the Colombians entirely and buying raw cocaine directly from growers in Peru and Bolivia.

"The Tijuana and Juarez cartels are killing one another like in the Godfather movies, but still both are growing more powerful," says Jesus Blancornelas, senior editor of the Tijuana daily Zeta, who has written numerous exposés on Mexico's warring cartels.

Blancornelas explains that just as an increased Border Patrol presence in California and Texas has funneled more undocumented immigrants into Arizona, increased drug interdiction elsewhere has caused smugglers to shift operations to Arizona, where the border is more porous (the freight traffic through the Nogales point-of-entry alone is so heavy that customs officials randomly searching for drug loads are like eels striking into schools of fish).

"For a long time, Arizona has been the territory of the Tijuana cartel," he says. "Now, everyone is trying to move in."

Blancornelas was nearly murdered three years ago for speaking and writing so openly of the drug business in his country. He was shot four times, and his bodyguard was killed in a botched assassination attempt orchestrated by operatives of the Arrellano-Felix cartel.

That a drug lord would order the death of a crusading journalist in Mexico was far less surprising than the identity of the would-be assassins. The five young men hired to kill Blancornelas were members of the Ten Logan 30s, a San Diego street gang. Ensuing investigations revealed the Ten Logan 30s and other southern California gangs are routinely hired to provide security for drug shipments on both sides of the border. Members of the Ten Logan 30s have since been charged with the 1993 murder of a Mexican Catholic Cardinal, his driver and five others outside the Guadalajara airport.

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