Inside an Arizona Drug Smuggling Gang

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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