Longform

Inside an Arizona Drug Smuggling Gang

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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.

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Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen