Longform

Inside an Arizona Drug Smuggling Gang

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"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.

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Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen