Inside an Arizona Drug Smuggling Gang

His boss had just bought the white sedan he drove; it still was fitted with Mexican license plates. He had no insurance, and his only identification was a fake Mexican driver's license — now tucked against $140,000 in cash in a black backpack resting on the floor of the vehicle's passenger side.

"Oh, shit!" Rodrigo says in Spanish into the phone, speaking to his boss in Mexico. "I'm getting pulled over. I got to call you back."

Maybe the officers had been tailing him. Maybe, he thought, they knew what he was up to. He steered to the side of the road and placed the phone on the driver's side armrest.

Rodrigo is 26 years old and six feet tall. He was born in Mexico but grew up and graduated high school in Phoenix. His Mexican features are his dark hair and eyes. He has light skin, bordering on pale, and often wears Ray-Ban-style glasses with clear lenses. He can switch effortlessly between Spanish and English. His favorite band is Green Day. Much of life is a punchline to him. When he walks into a room, regardless whether he knows anybody, he banters with everyone and quickly becomes, if not the center of attention, a source of comic relief.

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The money in the backpack resulted from 280 pounds of marijuana he and his uncle had just sold. The cash would return to Mexico, with the weed heading over highways to the east, where it sells for about $400 more per pound each 1,000 miles it travels.

One of the officers asks for his identification, and Rodrigo removes the ID from the front pocket of his backpack. While that officer returns to the squad car with the fake license (technically, it's real but acquired through illegitimate means) the other questions Rodrigo — who remembers the incident like this.:

"So, what do you do?" the officer asks.

"Oh, I'm just working at my uncle's restaurant."

"What kind of food is it?"

"Oh, it's Mexican and whatever."

"Is it any good?"

"It's the best, man. You should try it."

"So, what's in the bag?" the officer says. "You don't have any knives or guns in there, do you?"

Rodrigo thinks, "Man, I'm fucked! What am I going to say? I'm gambling? My ass is going straight to jail!"

He tries to remember his rights and whether they can legally search the bag. Even after eight years in the smuggling business, he's never thought about what he would do or say if he got caught, never built a backstory or practiced composing himself and lying to a cop. He'd always thought he'd just jump out of the car and haul ass.

"Oh, just some dirty clothes," he responds. "I was going to go do some laundry over at my sister's."

Then the phone in the armrest rings, and rings.

"You wanna pick up your phone?" the officer asks. "It's ringing."

The cop leans in toward the window and stares at the caller ID. "You have a friend named Paloma. Doesn't that mean dove?"

"Yeah. That's a nickname."

"Hold on, let me talk to him."

The officer takes the phone and asks in gringo Spanish, "Co-mo say ya-ma tu amigo? De K calor es su car-O?"

After the officer interrogates Paloma, he hands back the phone and the other cop returns.

"Where'd you get this license?" this officer asks.

"Oh, it's because I live over there [in Mexico]."

"How come you look white and speak English?"

"Oh, I come and go a lot. I live over there a lot. I'm just visiting."

The cops wrap up the questioning and let Rodrigo leave.

Afterward, Paloma, a calm 31-year-old Mexican who coordinates the delivery of more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana to Phoenix each month, calls back, and the two laugh about the officers: "Stupid gringo policía."

Looking back on the moment, Rodrigo says, "I think [they] looked at my appearance and probably thought I didn't look too foul or something. If I would've looked like some foul-ass beaner, they probably would've been digging around and shit . . . My appearance helps a lot."

Rodrigo picks up loads and coordinates deliveries. He's a go-fer for a gang that smuggles weed from Mexico to Phoenix. Rodrigo might spend a day scouring auto-parts stores in the Valley, looking for shocks for his boss' cars in Mexico, or tracking down binoculars at outdoor stores — whatever Paloma needs. When work arrives, he meets drivers in grocery or mall parking lots and switches cars to drive the hundreds of pounds of weed in trunks to the stash house, which is also home.

Rodrigo, his 19-year-old cousin Sal, his uncle Sergio, and four other family members live in the small house on Phoenix's west side. From the house's garage, the pot moves to wholesalers. "Most of them are black or Jamaican," Rodrigo says. Each year, Palmona's group distributes about 10,000 pounds of marijuana to different people who drive it to places like Michigan, Maryland, Kentucky, and Chicago, where it's divided into pounds, half-pounds, ounces.

Indeed, says a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report, "Most of the marijuana and heroin that transits the Mexico-Arizona border area is destined for [out-of-state] domestic markets, including those in East Coast states."

Rodrigo's group is paid for bulk loads they pass on to the wholesalers. If it's someone they've worked with for years, they financially front the load. If not, they receive payment first. Rodrigo's crew takes its cut and sends the rest back to Paloma in Mexico. He takes his cut and uses the rest to buy the merchandise that keeps the $500,000-a-year business rolling.

No one in the group carries a gun; none has teardrop tattoos or dresses in shirts that reach their knees. They're a small operation, a tiny part of marijuana smuggling from Mexico, which Los Angeles' RAND Drug Policy Research Center says is a $2 billion-a-year business overall.

Rodrigo, Sergio, and Paloma were born or grew up in a small Mexican city in the state of Chihuahua a few hours south of the border. It's a family business. Paloma isn't related; he's a family friend, but he's the pápi of the group. About 10 others work in the operation: backpackers, lookouts, those who drive packed weed from southern Arizona after it has crossed the border.

Rodrigo works directly with Sal and Sergio. The men who pick up and drive the weed and deliver it to the stash house might be friends of theirs or friends of people they've worked with, but they typically won't know who they're dealing with until a shipment arrives.

Paloma manages the operation. In a business where asking questions is grounds for dismissal, Paloma oversees the smuggling process to Phoenix, passing along appropriate phone numbers and making certain that each cog in the operation does what it's paid to do, when it's paid to do it.

The government calls operations like Paloma's "drug trafficking organizations," the tone of which sounds as if such endeavors are formalized from a cartel boss on down. But the groups that Paloma works with are more like floating subcontractors connected only by product.

Forty percent to 67 percent of all weed in the United States comes from Mexico, according to the RAND Center. It's typically called "commercial grade," contains stems and seeds, and — when it comes to Arizona — is supplied by the Sinaloa Cartel.

"Sinaloa . . . exploits well-established routes in Arizona and [has] perfected smuggling methods to supply drug-distribution networks located throughout the United States," states the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, a coalition of federal and local agencies.

Asked whether she knows how many groups like Paloma's operate in Arizona, Ramona Sanchez, special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency in Phoenix, says, "Not really. We've made several operational take-downs. We've taken down several people with connections to the Sinaloa Cartel."

Sanchez defines a "connection" to the Sinaloa Cartel as someone merchandising dope bought from the cartel. And since almost all the pot in Arizona comes from the Sinaloans, does Paloma's group work for the cartel? Does a dealer who's slinging sacks on the corner?

Sanchez and many government reports acknowledge that subcontractor groups such as Paloma's have no direct link to the cartel, but this doesn't stop certain law enforcement from calling every Mexican carrying a load of weed through the desert a cartel member.

Aside from buying about $250,000 worth of weed each month from the cartel, Rodrigo and Paloma say they have no other connection to it. Paloma says his group seldom has resorted to violence, but he admits that it he is part of an industry where murder, torture, and kidnapping are tools.

In their minds, Paloma and his gang move a product demanded by U.S. customers — a product that supports Sergio's three children and Paloma's family and subsidizes his clothing shop. As for Rodrigo, if he can manage to start saving some of his earnings, he wants to someday open a restaurant in Phoenix — or maybe a strip club.

Rodrigo wakes at 9:30 on a warm winter morning. "Fuckin' Paloma calls me at this time every day just to bug the shit out of me."

Paloma keeps tabs on Rodrigo, gives him hell when he's hung over on a weekday, and disapproves when he learns that Rodrigo has snorted cocaine. Rodrigo reveres Paloma, but he thinks he's a prig. Paloma says he's looking out for Rodrigo.

Later that day, Rodrigo wires $800 to Mexico from a pawn shop, which he prefers over Western Union because it saves him money. After that, he pays Paloma's phone bill at a Boost Mobile store and returns home to waits for his uncle.

The white stucco house with a Spanish tile roof has three bedrooms. It's littered with Barbie dolls for Sergio's daughter. There's a crack in the ceiling of the living room, where they watch Spanish novelas on a stolen flat-screen TV.

Sergio's wife keeps the white refrigerator stocked; atop it sits a Cookie Monster cookie jar. At Christmas, Sergio paid a neighborhood tweaker $10 to hang lights on the house. In the garage, there are two white freezer boxes. One is filled with Red Baron pizza, and the other contains an old 20-pound brick of marijuana.

The garage is crucial for any smuggling operation: Car pulls in with dope, garage door closes, dope is unloaded, car leaves. Another car pulls in later, dope is loaded, and away it goes.

The smuggling business involves lots of waiting around — thank God for PlayStation. But when a load arrives, Rodrigo and his uncle and cousin can move a few hundred pounds of marijuana in and out of the garage in no more than a couple of days.

It has been nearly a month since the last load arrived. It's time for a little side work.

Sergio, a thick 37-year-old with a mustache and short black hair, piles into his silver truck with Rodrigo. His daughter's empty baby stroller is in the back. Sergio barely says a word unless it's on the phone. He talks with people who want weed but can't find it, who have it but can't get rid of it, and friends who want small amounts.

A squawking phone is something Sergio, Paloma, and Rodrigo have in common.

As Sergio and Rodrigo near Seventh Street and McDowell Road, Sergio arranges a meeting, parks at a Sonic restaurant next to an outdoor intercom, and orders cherry limeades.

A black Lincoln Navigator parks at the intercom to the right. Sergio knows a man with more weed than he can get rid of, so he agrees to buy a couple of hundred pounds at $535 a pound. The plan is to turn around and sell it to the guy in the Navigator for about $555.

"You know, it's not even worth it," Rodrigo says of the side deal and others like it. They might make $20 a pound total from this deal, but they'll have to haggle with the sellers and buyers. And it's a lot riskier.

"Yeah, but we got to do something," Sergio says.

When weed comes in from Paloma, there's far more money at stake. Sergio makes about $10 a pound; Rodrigo's cut would be about $7 a pound. Rodrigo alone generally makes about $2,000 for 300 pounds.

A Hispanic man wearing a black shirt and jean shorts leans over the passenger's-side window of Sergio's truck, looking nervously about. In plain sight, Sergio passes him a mason jar with a sample nugget the size of a plum, eliciting a jittery smile from Navigator man. It used to be that when they came to meetings like this, they'd break off a piece of a 20-pound bale and give it to the guy. Now, Sergio and Rodrigo won't even let the Navigator guy take the nug out of the mason jar. He has to unscrew the lid and sniff it.

"Fuck, man, we're in a recession," Rodrigo says sarcastically.

Rodrigo met Paloma through Sergio, whose family has been involved in the drug trade in Chihuahua for a long time. Rodrigo grew up in several homes in Mexico and around Phoenix. When Rodrigo was young, his father and mother split up, and Sergio — his uncle through marriage — had a hand in "kidnapping" Rodrigo from his father so his mother could have him. After that, Sergio took Rodrigo and his mother into his house on the west side.

When your family owns a bakery, you become a baker. Rodrigo's new family ran drugs.

During high school in Central Phoenix, Rodrigo and his friends sold shake they found in used plastic that had wrapped marijuana bales. Sometimes they pilfered leftover nugs and sold them. Paloma hung around Sergio's house to check on things, and sometimes he would pick up Rodrigo from school. Rodrigo shuttled money for a bit: He'd drive from Phoenix to a house in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with cash stuffed in propane tanks. "One time I took half a million," he brags. Paloma slowly gave Rodrigo more responsibility, and their relationship grew. Now they talk a lot; when Rodrigo was in jail for an old bench warrant last year, Paloma bailed him out.

Sergio and the buyer in the Navigator set a 7 a.m. meeting to pick up the weed, and he and Rodrigo drive away. With his left hand on the wheel, Sergio reaches into his khaki cargo pants pocket, pinches a bit of coke between his thumb and index finger and takes a succession of loud sniffs.

"Today is Friday, man," Rodrigo says, meaning it's still the work week.

"Whatever," Sergio replies. "Every day is the same: Sun goes up and fucking sets in same place."

"Say that to the guys who wake up at 8 everyday and get off at 5," Rodrigo says.

"To me, every day is Saturday," Sergio responds, as he drives toward the stash house also known as home.

A few days later, 400 pounds of pot on its way to their house is caught by authorities 20 minutes north of Tombstone. But, soon after, 200 pounds makes it to their garage, having started its U.S. journey at the border in Cochise County.

The border fence is 12 feet tall a few miles east of Naco in Cochise County: One portion has rounded poles the thickness of fence posts and gaps of equal size. The other is wire mesh. The poles have shiny slick marks from the shoes of Mexicans who have slid down. And for those climbing the mesh fence, "All they had to do was use screwdrivers [to go up and over]," says Detective Daniel Romero of the Cochise County Sheriff's Office. "It was no issue."

Romero has worked in law enforcement for 24 years, 15 of it in this border county. He's a member of his office's eight-deputy Narcotics Enforcement Team, some of whom work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the DEA. Romero's ancestors hail from Central Mexico, and the frustration of trying to defend the United States from contraband doesn't invade his soft, matter-of-fact voice.

As a narcotics agent, Romero mostly interdicts marijuana loads. In 2010, marijuana seized along the southwestern U.S. border accounted for 96 percent of what was confiscated nationwide. Half of it was nabbed in Arizona. Smugglers come at all hours: Two days earlier, Romero busted a car carrying 200 pounds of pot at 1:30 in the afternoon. Broad daylight. A day before that, a golfer playing the fifth hole at the Turquoise Valley Golf course in Naco reported a troupe of packers as they scudded through a wash — just a chip shot away.

"We'd like to tell you that there are certain times of the day when they do it most," Romero says. "But it's all the time. They go when they're ready."

Most of the smuggling action is near milepost six, which authorities call "The Seam," halfway between Naco and Douglas. Romero drives his Silver Chevy truck, with an M4 carbine and a shotgun where the drink holders should be, along a dirt road beside the border fence. Up close, the desert here is anything but level; it's streaked with washes and has dense grass several feet high, boulders, and creosote bushes so thick that if a smuggler wanted to hide from pursuing authorities, he'd simply need to bend over and scurry off like a jackrabbit to vanish.

"It's hard to find them if they get into this stuff," Romero says.

As Romero stands atop a hill, he focuses the dial of his $1,200 Vortex Razor binoculars at a faded, white tarp flapping in the wind. On the Mexican side of the border is a lookout bivouac that's manned, Romero thinks, 24 hours a day. A smuggler might be up there right now, he says, staring back at him while communicating to a boss in a nearby town.

Paloma's home is not far from the bald hill where Romero stands. In the Mexican town where he lives, Paloma shares a sparse, tile-floored, two-bedroom house with a friend. He keeps almost an entire butchered cow, including head, in his freezer. He has a propane space heater and spends hours perusing Phoenix Craigslist posts, searching for random items that Rodrigo will have to pick up.

Paloma has dark skin and the build of an athlete gone a bit doughy. He wears jeans and shirts with collars and the brand names stamped on the chest. His haircut could be described as faux-hawk. He can be taciturn and stern. But, among friends, this gives way to a smile and a cackling laugh.

Although his SUV is conspicuously shiny compared to the many beaters in town, Paloma tries to keep a low profile. Years ago, he got into an argument at a bar, and his adversary smashed a beer bottle against Paloma's face. He decided to walk away. You never know who might have connections. If he'd wanted revenge, Paloma says, he knows a few people who could have kidnapped or killed his assailant.

Working as a smuggler means he must live away from his wife and daughter, whom he shows off in cell-phone pictures. Paloma hates the town he lives in. He's building his family a house in his hometown, where he visits them nearly every week. During work, he lives like a bachelor: bland Chinese food, sweet bread from a gas station, hot dogs from street vendors.

A walkie-talkie in his kitchen sounds off with the voices of associates. Either Paloma or his roommate carries the radio to lunch, dinner, and on trips around town, holding it closely to their ears at times. With the radio and his phone, Paloma tracks each leg of his dope's trip north, starting with the backpackers who slip across the fence and attempt to evade the Border Patrol (or whatever agency is on duty), each packer carrying two or three 20-pound bales of weed.

Nearly all drug seizures outside points of entry in Arizona and New Mexico involve marijuana. And more than 90 percent of the seizures are from smugglers on foot. Backpackers generally work in teams. Each squad has a leader, who may carry a few bales himself, getting paid about $1,000 for each operation. Authorities call these men FTOs, or field-training officers. Typically, an FTO has worked in the smuggling business for many years and knows about hideouts, Border Patrol shift changes, and how to get by thermal-vision cameras that enable agents to see about eight miles.

Once the backpackers cross the border fence, the lead packer communicates on a disposable phone to men posted on hills who relay warnings, locations of authorities, and all-clear signals. In some spots, it's four miles of stop-and-gos from the border fence to State Route 80, a favored smuggling highway that connects Douglas to Bisbee.

Paloma sends his lead backpacker the phone number of a driver who will pick up the load in the area. The driver will pull off to the side of the highway or down a dirt path that connects ranches and homes in the area. The packers hide in bushes. With the deft speed of a racetrack pit crew, they can load 200 pounds of marijuana into the trunk of a compact car and send it on its way in about 30 seconds.

"[Authorities] do what they can, but because of the terrain, they can't stop the [vast majority of] it," Romero says. "And that's a fact. You'd have to constantly have thousands of guys working this area all the time."

The driver might backtrack to Douglas and let the weed lie low at a stash house; he might circuitously make his way northwest on smaller highways. Or, sometimes, the driver will head through Bisbee on State Route 80 and past a Border Patrol checkpoint near Tombstone. Although this route is through a checkpoint, it's the quickest path to the carotid artery of smuggling, Interstate 10.

The Border Patrol caught the 400 pounds of pot headed to Rodrigo and his uncle's house along SR 80 just days after he and Sergio met with Navigator man for the side deal. Sensing that he was about to get caught, the driver stopped his Dodge Durango north of the Tombstone checkpoint and vanished into the night, leaving the weed behind.

It was on SR 80, as well — although along the eastbound portion that runs through New Mexico — that the Border Patrol busted two of Rodrigo's close friends in 2005. One is Sergio's nephew, the other Rodrigo's high school pal. Rodrigo's pal hadn't been out of school more than a year.

The Border Patrol pulled over the two to perform an "immigration check," and a K-9 dog went crazy. This led to 260 pounds in the trunk of the sedan. Originally, the pair only had been supposed to scout the road ahead and watch for authorities, for which they each were to be paid $800, plus expenses. But when they pulled up to the rally point, the packers stuffed the trunk and told them they'd have to drive on with the product.

Rodrigo can't help feeling responsible, blaming himself for getting his friend involved. His buddy was sentenced to 30 months in prison and four years' supervised release.

Authorities aren't the only ones Rodrigo and the team worry will take their product. In recent years, rip crews, or bajadores, increasingly have preyed upon smuggling units. Rodrigo speaks of these rip crews as subhuman parasites. It's one thing if the authorities intercept a load, because this is written off as a cost of doing business. But if a rip crew steals a load, it's the carrier's responsibility, and he must foot the bill.

This happened to Rodrigo when someone he'd worked with and trusted for years ran off with 200 pounds of product. Rodrigo still owes $70,000 for this misfortune and pays off the debt monthly to Paloma.

There's a code of ethics among most of the criminals who smuggle marijuana into the United States — which is why, when thieves stole from his gang, the normally cool-headed Paloma vowed, "We're going to kidnap those motherfuckers!"

Two men they'd worked with in the past had recommended a man to shuttle a load. As soon as the driver picked it up and drove away, he stopped answering Paloma's phone calls. Thinking it might be a scam perpetrated by the two men who'd recommended the driver, Rodrigo arranged a meeting between himself, Paloma, and the pair to chat on neutral ground: Chandler Fashion Center. They talked in the food court, and as the four walked outside toward the parking lot, two guys hired by Paloma pressed guns against the suspected thieves' backs.

Rodrigo drove as the duo was ushered to the Red Roof Inn near 51st Avenue and McDowell, through the motel's double doors, past the complimentary coffee stand, and down a carpeted hallway into a room.

"We fed them," Rodrigo says. "We were decent."

Paloma and Rodrigo left, and the hired men held the thieves. The kidnappers were local hoods, not professionals. Threatening violence, they insisted that the men were responsible for the lost load and that it better be returned. It never was, but Paloma decided to let the pair survive uninjured, figuring that if they were the thieves, they'd never have the nerve to cross his people again.

"I didn't feel that bad about it because we didn't hurt those guys," Rodrigo says. "It was just something we had to do. It was just part of the business."

Rodrigo is sipping on soup at a family member's apartment on Phoenix's east side when his phone rings. For weeks, he's been waiting for a load, and one has arrived.

The night sky is clear and the moon half-full when Rodrigo pulls up in the quiet neighborhood where he and his family live. His uncle, cousin, and the men who drove the weed from down south shuffle on the driveway beneath the switched-off Christmas lights. The carrier car, loaded with 200 pounds of marijuana, is in the garage.

Normally, Rodrigo would meet the person who brought the weed to Phoenix in a parking lot, take the man's keys, drive the bales himself to Sergio's garage, unload it, and write down the weight of each brick, to the hundredth of a pound, in his notebook. But Rodrigo and his uncle have worked with these men for a long time.

The dope eventually is driven to a stash house in Scottsdale operated by men who move loads east.

The next morning, Rodrigo and his cousin, Sal, sit at the kitchen table and divvy up the $100,000 they were paid for the drugs. Each takes his cut, and then they bundle the remaining cash in Glad ClingWrap into $5,000 stacks — each marked with a "5" — to be driven to Paloma in Mexico.

Rodrigo doesn't know how long he and the others can last in the smuggling trade.

For Paloma, there's a reduced threat of getting gunned down on the streets of one of his towns because violence has calmed in northern Mexico — maybe, his gang believes, because the Sinaloa Cartel has reasserted itself as the feared, dominant force there. It pays to be doing business with the jefes in control.

Rodrigo wonders what he'll do after this phase of his life ends. He worked for a while in a restaurant, learning the ropes, in the hope that his dream of owning one might someday be realized.

For now, when he meets a girl and she asks what does for a living, he says, "I work with money." The well-spoken Rodrigo sometimes goes on that he works in a bank, because, he says with a sigh, no decent girl wants to date a drug dealer.

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Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen