City of Coke

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• 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.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse