Inside an Arizona Drug Smuggling Gang

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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.

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Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen