Inside an Arizona Drug Smuggling Gang

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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.

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Weston Phippen
Contact: Weston Phippen