Inside an Arizona Drug Smuggling Gang

His boss had just bought the white sedan he drove; it still was fitted with Mexican license plates. He had no insurance, and his only identification was a fake Mexican driver's license — now tucked against $140,000 in cash in a black backpack resting on the floor of the vehicle's passenger side.

"Oh, shit!" Rodrigo says in Spanish into the phone, speaking to his boss in Mexico. "I'm getting pulled over. I got to call you back."

Maybe the officers had been tailing him. Maybe, he thought, they knew what he was up to. He steered to the side of the road and placed the phone on the driver's side armrest.

Rodrigo is 26 years old and six feet tall. He was born in Mexico but grew up and graduated high school in Phoenix. His Mexican features are his dark hair and eyes. He has light skin, bordering on pale, and often wears Ray-Ban-style glasses with clear lenses. He can switch effortlessly between Spanish and English. His favorite band is Green Day. Much of life is a punchline to him. When he walks into a room, regardless whether he knows anybody, he banters with everyone and quickly becomes, if not the center of attention, a source of comic relief.

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The money in the backpack resulted from 280 pounds of marijuana he and his uncle had just sold. The cash would return to Mexico, with the weed heading over highways to the east, where it sells for about $400 more per pound each 1,000 miles it travels.

One of the officers asks for his identification, and Rodrigo removes the ID from the front pocket of his backpack. While that officer returns to the squad car with the fake license (technically, it's real but acquired through illegitimate means) the other questions Rodrigo — who remembers the incident like this.:

"So, what do you do?" the officer asks.

"Oh, I'm just working at my uncle's restaurant."

"What kind of food is it?"

"Oh, it's Mexican and whatever."

"Is it any good?"

"It's the best, man. You should try it."

"So, what's in the bag?" the officer says. "You don't have any knives or guns in there, do you?"

Rodrigo thinks, "Man, I'm fucked! What am I going to say? I'm gambling? My ass is going straight to jail!"

He tries to remember his rights and whether they can legally search the bag. Even after eight years in the smuggling business, he's never thought about what he would do or say if he got caught, never built a backstory or practiced composing himself and lying to a cop. He'd always thought he'd just jump out of the car and haul ass.

"Oh, just some dirty clothes," he responds. "I was going to go do some laundry over at my sister's."

Then the phone in the armrest rings, and rings.

"You wanna pick up your phone?" the officer asks. "It's ringing."

The cop leans in toward the window and stares at the caller ID. "You have a friend named Paloma. Doesn't that mean dove?"

"Yeah. That's a nickname."

"Hold on, let me talk to him."

The officer takes the phone and asks in gringo Spanish, "Co-mo say ya-ma tu amigo? De K calor es su car-O?"

After the officer interrogates Paloma, he hands back the phone and the other cop returns.

"Where'd you get this license?" this officer asks.

"Oh, it's because I live over there [in Mexico]."

"How come you look white and speak English?"

"Oh, I come and go a lot. I live over there a lot. I'm just visiting."

The cops wrap up the questioning and let Rodrigo leave.

Afterward, Paloma, a calm 31-year-old Mexican who coordinates the delivery of more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana to Phoenix each month, calls back, and the two laugh about the officers: "Stupid gringo policía."

Looking back on the moment, Rodrigo says, "I think [they] looked at my appearance and probably thought I didn't look too foul or something. If I would've looked like some foul-ass beaner, they probably would've been digging around and shit . . . My appearance helps a lot."

Rodrigo picks up loads and coordinates deliveries. He's a go-fer for a gang that smuggles weed from Mexico to Phoenix. Rodrigo might spend a day scouring auto-parts stores in the Valley, looking for shocks for his boss' cars in Mexico, or tracking down binoculars at outdoor stores — whatever Paloma needs. When work arrives, he meets drivers in grocery or mall parking lots and switches cars to drive the hundreds of pounds of weed in trunks to the stash house, which is also home.

Rodrigo, his 19-year-old cousin Sal, his uncle Sergio, and four other family members live in the small house on Phoenix's west side. From the house's garage, the pot moves to wholesalers. "Most of them are black or Jamaican," Rodrigo says. Each year, Palmona's group distributes about 10,000 pounds of marijuana to different people who drive it to places like Michigan, Maryland, Kentucky, and Chicago, where it's divided into pounds, half-pounds, ounces.