"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."