By Amy Silverman
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Apparently going straight has won him many unlikely allies, including former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, whose staunch anti-drug positions while in office were well documented.
"Tony is a shining example of why we shouldn't give up on people, that there is good in most of us," says Romley, a former Marine who lost his legs to a mine explosion during the Vietnam War.
"Sure, he was a lawbreaker, but there for the grace of God went a lot of us. I know that he cleaned up his act and has helped a lot of people, especially at-risk kids. As for the war stuff, he did things of great consequence for his fellow soldiers without regard for himself. Isn't that what a hero is?"
The feds first busted Tony Tercero for conspiring to sell marijuana on November 1, 1974.
It was the same day that the U.S. Army honorably discharged the staff sergeant after seven distinguished years.
Tercero was 26 and the father of two young daughters (a son would come along a few years later). He says he pocketed more money moving dope in the month before his official discharge (he was using sick leave at the time) than in his entire seven-plus years in the Army.
He began to live large, driving fancy cars, cavorting with fancy women, and, inevitably, hiring fancy lawyers.
That Tony Tercero became a key member of what was known to the police as "The Tercero Marijuana Smuggling Syndicate" shouldn't have surprised anyone who knew his background.
"I was born to play the game," he says. "I always liked to live somewhat on the edge."
Reynel Martinez, himself a decorated Lurp who was Tercero's mentor and sergeant for a time in Vietnam, analyzes him like this:
"Tony is the ultimate right-brain guy. In Vietnam, he was intuitive and more connected to the earth than most, and was able to instinctively react to situations. He can see the big picture, and get things done on his own, and he's done that his whole life — as a kid, a soldier, a drug smuggler, and now. He grew up very tough, you know."
Tony Tercero spent his early years in the Arizona mining town of Miami. He was an "M & M," as he puts it — a "Mountain Mexican."
He was the oldest of five children born to Ernesto and Maria Tercero. All his siblings are still living. His younger brother Jimmy is in prison for possessing heroin.
Tercero's uncle, a few years older than him, is Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Arizona gubernatorial candidate and state senator.
The Terceros moved to Douglas when Tony was about 6. But his father, then a traveling salesman, abandoned the family a few years later, moving to Phoenix and leaving his wife with her young brood.
"One day he left and didn't come back," Tercero says. "We went from having everything to nothing."
Tercero says he and younger brother Ernie took to shining shoes and selling tamales on the streets of Douglas. The two were bilingual, which held them in good stead when they began to steer soldiers from nearby Fort Huachuca to whorehouses across the border in Agua Prieta.
"Little pimps," Tercero says, chuckling. "Or should I say, up-and-coming young businessmen?"
He fought frequently as a kid, which wasn't unusual for someone on the streets as much as he was. But a Cochise County court official wrote in 1960 that Tercero, who was 12 at the time, also hit his mother on occasion and was careening out of control.
Maria Tercero decided to ship her oldest child to Phoenix to live with her estranged husband. Ernesto Tercero Sr. proved more a peer than an authority figure, and young Tony soon began to get in trouble with the local police.
Stints in and out of the juvenile detention center at Fort Grant in eastern Arizona and similar facilities followed for the next several years.
Tercero's final stay at Fort Grant ended on August 26, 1966, shortly before his 18th birthday. Back in Phoenix, he decided one day to enlist in the Army after getting into a serious barroom brawl that he feared might land him in adult prison.
"Of course I had heard of Vietnam, but I couldn't have told you where it was," Tercero says. "I wasn't gung-ho. I just wanted to stay out of jail."
After acing basic training, Tony Tercero started his Army career in the infantry, another grunt about to be dropped into a war-torn land far from Phoenix.
He left for Vietnam in December 1967.
"We didn't know nothing," he says. "We were all cherries. It didn't seem real."
Tercero soon learned how real Vietnam was.
"Gunfire, bodies, adrenaline, confusion, people getting killed because people didn't know what they were doing," is how he describes it.
Much as he had in Arizona, Tercero quickly learned the lay of the land in 'Nam. During lulls, he says, the "scrounger" found where to score beer, soda, and other morale-boosting fare.
On March 7, 1968, Tercero was wounded by shrapnel from an incoming missile. That laid him up for about a month.
Still with months to go in his tour, Tercero resolved to do whatever it took to stay out of harm's way. For starters, he persuaded Army doctors to sign a form that would keep from the front lines.