City of Coke

He is a gangbanger, a drug dealer and a devoted father, and when he goes to buy coke from the Sinaloans, he always leaves his gun in the car. He says one .45 would do little good against the men on the other side of the duplex door. This door opens as he approaches, but only a third of the way, shielding what's behind it from view.

The drug dealer, whom we'll call Lobo, is a big man: six feet and 220, with gang tattoos on his neck and arms. There are seven bundles of cash totaling $10,000 stuffed into a manila envelope that in turn is stuffed into the waistband of his maroon sweat pants and concealed by a XXL pro wrestling tee shirt. As Lobo turns sideways to slide through the entry, the money rubs against the door, making a crumpling sound.

The door is closed and locked by a man wearing scuffed boots, stained jeans and a flannel work shirt more timeworn than his eyes. Saying nothing, this man settles into a chair by the door and watches the deal go down.

Three men are seated around a Formica table in the kitchen. If not for the deadly nature of their work, they would be in the middle of their lives. One rises to greet Lobo, smiling like he sells toothpaste instead of cocaine. He's short and fat and wears no shirt. The hammer of a pistol cuts a groove into the flesh overhanging his belt. He motions for Lobo to follow him down a hall. In less than a minute, they return. Then the killing of time begins.

On the way here, Lobo had explained how the Sinaloans like him to stick around for a while once they've got the money and he's got the coke. They tell him it's in everyone's interest to avoid the in-and-out foot traffic of a typical drug salon.

Lobo sees their point, though he'd still rather just score the sola and go. Born into the gang that has dominated the streets of his barrio for decades, Lobo is a veteran of countless fistfights and more than one shootout. He's no coward, but the Sinaloans scare him.

"I don't like Mexicans," the second-generation Mexican American confides. "I don't trust those fucking guys. Killing to them is just business, bro. What you call 'downsizing.'"

Lobo deals with the Sinaloans because they have a consistent supply of cocaine from Mexico that they sell for an attractive price. Tonight, Lobo will take the coke he just bought for 10 grand, dilute it, divide it and sell it for $18,000 in separate deals to other midlevel drug dealers in other gangs in Mesa, Phoenix and Glendale. Those gang members will most likely dilute the product some more, or transform it to crack cocaine, or both, then sell it for up to $30,000 to dozens of street-level dealers, who will sell it to hundreds of users in grams, half-grams, and eightballs (one-eighth of an ounce) for as much as $50,000 when all's said, snorted, smoked, shot and done.

That's how the dope game's played, and in the Valley of the Sun there are more players now than ever. Dynamic changes in the international drug market over the past decade have given rise to Mexican polydrug cartels that rival the power of their coke-running Colombian counterparts in the 1980s. A new federal study estimates that 43 percent of all illegal drug sales involve gang members. The vast majority of cocaine, methamphetamine, low-grade marijuana and black tar heroin on the streets of America this morning was smuggled from Mexico, and because of intensified enforcement on the Texas and California borders, the first stop for most of it was Tucson or Phoenix.

The net effect for Arizona has become a dark litany of all-time highs:

• More drugs than ever are being seized coming in from Mexico, and more money than ever is being seized going out, which only means more of both are getting through. U.S. Customs officials seized $13.3 million bound for Mexico this year, more than five times what was caught in 1998.

• More and more street gangs based outside Arizona are sending members here to establish connections with local gangs and Mexican narcotraficantes. A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration describes Arizona as "a narcotics shopping mall for criminal gangs across the country."

• Mexican and Mexican-American prison gangs such as the Border Brothers and the New Mexican Mafia have evolved into drug syndicates devoted to benefiting their increasing number of members on both sides of the prison walls.

• The links between these syndicates and Valley street gangs such as citywide Wetback Power and a number of neighborhood-based Mexican-American gangs have drawn so tight that their names are virtually interchangeable. Gang members on the street have become the foot soldiers, couriers, collectors and assassins for their puppet masters in prison.

• Arizona is often a battleground in a struggle for power among Mexican drug lords. Unsolved homicides in Maricopa County have hit record levels, and the number of Mexican and Mexican-American murder victims has more than tripled in recent years. Law enforcement officials directly attribute both rises to violence between warring factions of drug traffickers from Mexico and their allies in the U.S., many of whom are members of a prison gang, a street gang or both.

"Nearly everything a member of a gang does, whether it's homicide or aggravated assault, whether it's in prison or on the street, is done in the name of business, and their business is narcotics," says Department of Corrections criminal intelligence analyst and undercover investigator Todd Gerrish, who tracks the politics of local gangs and maintains regular contact with gang members and informants.

"There's a direct tie-in between the Mexican cartels and large, organized criminal gangs in Arizona, because gangs in Arizona, one way or another, get all their narcotics from the Mexican cartels. Now, chances are they don't get it directly from the man in the mansion in Hermosillo or Tijuana or Juarez or Culiacan. They may only know the guy who's a cell phone call away from the guy who's a cell phone call away from the guy who's a cell phone call away from the man in the mansion, but their fortunes are still linked.

"What happens with the cartels in Mexico has a direct impact on the gang situation here, and right now, that impact is definitely not good."

Lobo has killed 10 minutes in the duplex now, half-listening as the two Sinaloans at the kitchen table answer a few gentle questions while they play Resident Evil on a Playstation hooked up to a portable color TV.

The Sinaloans say they're brothers. The one by the door is their cousin. They're from a rancho in Sinaloa, not a city, and they have families there. They say they would much rather live in Sinaloa than Arizona. They're only here to make money.

The Mexican farming state of Sinaloa has long been a fertile recruiting ground for drug lords offering to raise a man's wages one hundred fold, and so-called Sinaloan Cowboys have become the most feared mercenaries in Mexico's drug wars, and in America's war on drugs. Though they work for various factions of warring drug cartels, or in some cases form their own mini-cartels, Sinaloan Cowboys share a reputation for ultraviolence, and for keeping their mouths shut when they get busted.

"We don't have a witness protection back home in Sinaloa," says one Phoenix DEA agent. "They don't say anything because they're afraid their families would be tortured and killed."

Prompted, the men at the table agree they miss their wives. They also complain their jobs are boring.

"Mostly, it's waiting," one says.

During this discussion, Lobo remains the picture of impassive cool. The only sign he is nervous is the way he turns his pager over and over on his knee, slowly, half a turn every few seconds.

Lobo's pager goes off so much some days he calls it "my crybaby," because it reminds him of his baby when she's sick. The Sinaloans paged him an hour ago with a string of code for the time to meet and the place. This duplex is one of two drop houses in the same neighborhood Lobo says are managed by this particular cell of Mexicans.

One year ago, Lobo was still slinging small amounts of coke to white boys out of his mom's house. He likes to show off how he can still expertly break a piece from a fist-size chunk of cocaine, drop it on a digital scale, and have it weigh within a quarter gram of the requested amount. When he was making dozens of minute transactions a day, this was a useful talent. Now, it's just a parlor trick.

Lobo has promoted himself from middle-manager to executive. He buys cocaine by the pound now instead of the half-ounce, and he only conducts business one day, all day, every two or three weeks. No more desperate coke heads paging him every 10 minutes, wondering when they can stop by.

"No more bullshit," he says, simply. "No addicts. Less work, more money."

But more fear, too. Fear of going to prison for more than a few months.

Fear of the Sinaloans deciding to add his body to the scores of perforated corpses found this year in the trunks of cars or dumped along the Gila River. He must hide this fear, he says, because the Sinaloans must not see him as weak.

"This is still mi barrio," he says. "I have to keep them thinking they can't touch me here, because if they did, it would start a war, and a war is bad for their business. So there's no reason for me to be afraid . . . but still, yes, I am, because Sinaloans are fucking cabaezas locos, bro. You never know what kind of crazy shit they'll do."

Lobo remembers the first Mexican narcos who set up shop in the neighborhood where he grew up. A neighborhood where the traffickers didn't need to speak English, where they could blend in, where one of them had a brother-in-law. They came in 1991, maybe 1992, when Lobo was in his early 20s, still getting a new gang tattoo every few months. Still bangin', "fightin' some dudes over one of their little brothers throwing down on your homey's little brothers at some car show. Lots of stupid shit like that."

He remembers the gang arguing over how to handle the Mexicans, who were selling methamphetamine and heroin to other Mexican dealers from outside the neighborhood.

"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."

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.

My mother has always raised me and my grandmother helped. My father has always been in prison so therefore I really never had anyone to keep me in line. Sure I had uncles but they were always on the streets always drugged out of their minds or were in and out of prison and if anything they were always telling me that when I get older I'm going to be from a gang. They would tell me "You're Baby Bullet" from 9th Street because my dad was "Bullet."

As I started getting older they would mention it more and more. When I started Junior High school my older cousins would talk about when they were going to jump me in. Pretty soon I was in high school and it happened. I got jumped into the family gang. Everyone was calling me "Little Bullet" and saying I was no baby anymore. I was only 16 and grown men would come up to me and show me respect. I mean, sure, it felt good when I was younger to run around doing stupid things like getting high and gang banging, but look where it has gotten me. I'm sitting here in a dirty old cell writing to you hoping that you will show mercy to me.

Camou got his wish. He was sentenced to five years probation, plus the 113 days he had already spent in jail.

Police arrested the Ninth Street veterano believed to be Camou's commander in the same Operation Taxation sweep. According to the charges, then 31-year-old Ruben "Little Moco" Moquino broke into the home of a local drug dealer and fence, threatened to cut off his nose with a pair of scissors, stabbed him three times in the legs, then stole a VCR, mountain bike and stereo equipment. Three days later, when police showed up to the victim's home to offer him witness protection, they found Moquino standing in his front doorway, yelling threats.

Moquino also received probation, then was arrested again following a newer lengthy investigation of the Ninth Street Gang by Phoenix Police and the FBI, which this time resulted in 41 indictments. This most recent investigation determined that Moquino and veteranos of the non-Carbajal Ninth Street Faction with ties to the Mexican Mafia reunited the old gang in the name of more cost-effective business.

Such peacemaking efforts are not unusual, says the DEA's Molesa.

"More and more, we're seeing bangers put aside their personal differences under the umbrella of drug profits. The older ones are telling the young guys to cut out that 'Don't dis my set' stuff because it interferes with making money."

In September, the DEA and the Arizona Gang Task Force arrested 24 members of a drug ring allegedly involving five street gangs, two from Tucson and two from Los Angeles, who collectively sold up to six pounds of cocaine a week to users and dealers in Tucson. Investigative reports say the L.A. gangs originally dispatched members to Arizona to buy cocaine in bulk, then moved them here permanently to help set up the drug ring in Tucson and send profits back to California. According to DEA reports, the gang members laundered money through a hip-hop clothing store that served as their base of operations.

"You could ring these guys at the store and order up anything from a few grams to a kilo," says Molesa. The ring handled most of its transactions in a city park located between an elementary school and a Catholic high school.

Four months before the Tucson bust, 11 members of a Jamaican gang that controls the distribution of marijuana in Queens, New York, were arrested in Phoenix and accused of transporting 30- to 60-pound loads of marijuana three times a week using overnight courier services. The Jamaicans had set up a fake shipping business, according to the DEA, and got their marijuana from Mexican smugglers on a contract basis.

"There's any number of scenarios involving gangs in Arizona and drugs from Mexico," says Molesa. "It goes anywhere from one member of one gang getting paid 400 bucks a week to pick up a car in the parking lot of the Kmart in Nogales on the U.S. side of the border, drive it to the Waffle House at I-10 and Baseline and leave it there with the keys on the seat, to multiple members of the gang buying drugs from Mexicans and selling it to other gangs, sometimes in other states. We have some gangs buying pot from Mexican juveniles who backpack it across the border. Think up any scenario, and it's probably happening out there right now."

Lobo's wife and daughter live in a new tract home purchased in another man's name. He also rents an apartment in a gated complex five minutes from his old neighborhood. He stores money and drugs here, and uses it to process cocaine. Inside this apartment, Lobo unwraps his latest purchase, four rocks of cocaine weighing nearly half a pound each. Using a utility razor, he painstakingly carves each rock into pieces, which he crushes and chops into a fine powder. This powder, sold to him as pure cocaine, he repeatedly sifts through a length of double-wrapped cheese cloth. Then he creates pre-ordered batches for his customers, cutting some of the cocaine with ephedrine powder, some with crystal methamphetamine, the rest with B-12 vitamin crystals.

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.

"Basically, the cartels are recruiting U.S. street gangs to create a binational army of killers," says Blancornelas.

So far, there is no concrete evidence of Arizona gangs being directly recruited by operatives of Mexican cartels.

Blancornelas expects that to change.

"It would only make sense as a next step," he says. "This is what they do. What moves drugs on the streets of America this morning is a direct extension of the cartels in Mexico. They like to put their own people in place to oversee things, yes, but they like to use the natural criminal resources of the U.S. as well.

"All we see leads us to a simple conclusion: As long as Americans demand drugs, there will be a supply from Mexico, and blood will spill on both sides of the border."

See previous stories in the Hard Core series here.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: [email protected]
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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse