City of Coke

He is a gangbanger, a drug dealer and a devoted father, and when he goes to buy coke from the Sinaloans, he always leaves his gun in the car. He says one .45 would do little good against the men on the other side of the duplex door. This door opens as he approaches, but only a third of the way, shielding what's behind it from view.

The drug dealer, whom we'll call Lobo, is a big man: six feet and 220, with gang tattoos on his neck and arms. There are seven bundles of cash totaling $10,000 stuffed into a manila envelope that in turn is stuffed into the waistband of his maroon sweat pants and concealed by a XXL pro wrestling tee shirt. As Lobo turns sideways to slide through the entry, the money rubs against the door, making a crumpling sound.

The door is closed and locked by a man wearing scuffed boots, stained jeans and a flannel work shirt more timeworn than his eyes. Saying nothing, this man settles into a chair by the door and watches the deal go down.

Three men are seated around a Formica table in the kitchen. If not for the deadly nature of their work, they would be in the middle of their lives. One rises to greet Lobo, smiling like he sells toothpaste instead of cocaine. He's short and fat and wears no shirt. The hammer of a pistol cuts a groove into the flesh overhanging his belt. He motions for Lobo to follow him down a hall. In less than a minute, they return. Then the killing of time begins.

On the way here, Lobo had explained how the Sinaloans like him to stick around for a while once they've got the money and he's got the coke. They tell him it's in everyone's interest to avoid the in-and-out foot traffic of a typical drug salon.

Lobo sees their point, though he'd still rather just score the sola and go. Born into the gang that has dominated the streets of his barrio for decades, Lobo is a veteran of countless fistfights and more than one shootout. He's no coward, but the Sinaloans scare him.

"I don't like Mexicans," the second-generation Mexican American confides. "I don't trust those fucking guys. Killing to them is just business, bro. What you call 'downsizing.'"

Lobo deals with the Sinaloans because they have a consistent supply of cocaine from Mexico that they sell for an attractive price. Tonight, Lobo will take the coke he just bought for 10 grand, dilute it, divide it and sell it for $18,000 in separate deals to other midlevel drug dealers in other gangs in Mesa, Phoenix and Glendale. Those gang members will most likely dilute the product some more, or transform it to crack cocaine, or both, then sell it for up to $30,000 to dozens of street-level dealers, who will sell it to hundreds of users in grams, half-grams, and eightballs (one-eighth of an ounce) for as much as $50,000 when all's said, snorted, smoked, shot and done.

That's how the dope game's played, and in the Valley of the Sun there are more players now than ever. Dynamic changes in the international drug market over the past decade have given rise to Mexican polydrug cartels that rival the power of their coke-running Colombian counterparts in the 1980s. A new federal study estimates that 43 percent of all illegal drug sales involve gang members. The vast majority of cocaine, methamphetamine, low-grade marijuana and black tar heroin on the streets of America this morning was smuggled from Mexico, and because of intensified enforcement on the Texas and California borders, the first stop for most of it was Tucson or Phoenix.

The net effect for Arizona has become a dark litany of all-time highs:

• More drugs than ever are being seized coming in from Mexico, and more money than ever is being seized going out, which only means more of both are getting through. U.S. Customs officials seized $13.3 million bound for Mexico this year, more than five times what was caught in 1998.

• More and more street gangs based outside Arizona are sending members here to establish connections with local gangs and Mexican narcotraficantes. A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration describes Arizona as "a narcotics shopping mall for criminal gangs across the country."

• Mexican and Mexican-American prison gangs such as the Border Brothers and the New Mexican Mafia have evolved into drug syndicates devoted to benefiting their increasing number of members on both sides of the prison walls.

• The links between these syndicates and Valley street gangs such as citywide Wetback Power and a number of neighborhood-based Mexican-American gangs have drawn so tight that their names are virtually interchangeable. Gang members on the street have become the foot soldiers, couriers, collectors and assassins for their puppet masters in prison.