Bloods, Crips, and Cartels: How American street gangs work with Mexican narco-kings to flood U.S. streets with drugs

Like most well-established Crips and Bloods sets, the Hempstead crews buy their coke and weed from traffickers connected to international drug cartels. The Crips patronize a wholesale supplier in New York City, who, in turn, gets his drugs from a contractor for Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel—the largest, richest, most successful drug-trafficking organization in history. Sinaloa purchases most of its coke from growers in Colombia’s mountain- side farms for about $2,000 per kilo—the first step in a highly structured supply chain that allows Sinaloa to export as much as half of all illegal narcotics currently on America’s streets.

“From Colombia,” says Tony, the Crips’ designated expert on drug markets and trends, “that coke package just gets more valuable every step of the way.”

The kilo’s price rises to about $10,000 in Mexico. After it’s smuggled into the United States, its value increases to roughly $30,000. Depending on the quality of an individual cocaine shipment, the Hempstead Crips can buy a kilo for $17,000 to $25,000 from their supplier. Once they have the coke, they turn it into crack inside a series of cookhouses they control in Long Island and Queens.Then they break the crack up into g-packs to sell at retail on the street.

By the time every rock has sold, they’ve made about $100,000.

“We taking in eighty thousand dollars’ profit, give or take a few grand, on every kilo we move,” Tony says. “That right there is why crack ain’t never going to die. That profit is just too good.”

Buyers at each level of the supply chain are not just paying for the drugs. “They’re paying for the risks everybody took to get the drugs to that point,” Tony says, “which is what drives that price up higher and higher each step of the way.”

Corner-dealing crews like those employed by Crips and Bloods probably assume more risk than anyone in the supply chain, standing out in the open in neighborhoods heavily patrolled by police, interacting with strung-out pipeheads, and competing for market share with an enemy crew just blocks away. As a result, the difference between how much they pay for coke versus how much they sell it for is usually significant. They hike up their prices based on the belief that they might be arrested or killed at any moment— and must earn as much money as possible while they’re still here. That inflated cost gets passed to street customers, Tony says. And the less competition a crew has in their neighborhoods, the more they can charge.

“In drug markets, like any lucrative markets for illegal goods, there’s a ton of pressure driving competitors to try for monopoly,” said a high- ranking Drug Enforcement Administration official who’s studied the nexus between Latin American drug cartels and African-American street gangs. “The way to achieve monopoly is to destroy the other guy. In the legitimate business world, you can drive a competitor out of business with a number of weapons: predatory pricing, lawsuits, buying them out. But for the drug gangs, violence is pretty much the only way. The situation in the Triangle, when you think about it, is really the result of market forces. Just like the cartel wars in Mexico are about the market.”

The carnage wrought by Crips and Bloods can seem tame compared with the Mexican cartel wars south of the border, where the organiza- tions’ soldiers are known to murder entire families, behead police officers, and dump decapitated bodies in the streets.

“The Mexican situation looks worse, but when you consider the scale of the damage Crips and Bloods have been causing to individual com- munities across America for the past half-century, well, the impact’s about the same in those neighborhoods,” the DEA official says. “Both the car- tels and the gangs destroy everything they come near.”

Sinaloa isn’t overly concerned with the behavior of Crips and Bloods who sell much of their product in America—as long as they help to keep the organization’s coffers full, drug investigators say. But that doesn’t mean the cartel doesn’t keep a close watch on how the gangs do business. In fact, Sinaloa leaders and middle managers read American newspapers and blogs to stay abreast of the havoc wrought by street-level dealers at the bottom of the supply chain, says Pedro Guerrero, a former Sinaloa soldier who helped to manage the cartel’s interests in Tijuana and Mexicali for over a decade. Even the cartel’s leader, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, is kept apprised of what Crips, Bloods, and other American gangs moving Sinaloa product are up to.

“El Chapo respects these street gangs, but thinks they are unnecessarily brutal and bad at doing business in the sense that they bring too much violence to their markets, and violence attracts police,” Guerrero says of El Chapo. “Keep in mind, this guy was ordering six murders every day before he had a cup of coffee. And he thinks the Bloods and Crips kill each other too much!”

El Chapo’s eventual capture in 2014 would deal a symbolic blow to Sinaloa, but in October 2012, it’s the arrest of a different cartel leader, El Chapo’s lieutenant, José “El Che” Salgueiro Nevarez, that gets the attention of New York’s Bloods and Crips sets.

As one of Sinaloa’s logistics and supplies expert, El Che played a sig- nificant role in trafficking much of the cocaine and marijuana making its way to Long Island and New York City street gangs, investigators say. In the days following El Che’s capture, the Hempstead Crips’ main supplier in New York City became so concerned about a delayed drug shipment that he flew to Mexico City for a meeting with his Sinaloa contact. He wanted to know whether El Che’s arrest might jeopardize their business arrangement.

“They [cartel leaders] knew there would be a lot of worry after they got El Che, and they wanted to [assure] customers that his capture would not interfere with deliveries or the business they were used to,” says Hector Quinones, a former Sinaloa messenger. “To them [Sinaloa senior manage- ment], this is a corporation. So just like the top leaders of a big computer or soda company would do if one of the board of directors got arrested and they wanted to calm investors, they sent messengers who talked to all their big customers and said, ‘Listen, this is no big deal. It doesn’t change our arrangement. Everything will stay exactly as it is, so don’t worry.’That’s what they told [the supplier] to the Crips in New York.”

As some of the largest purveyors of Sinaloa product in America, Crips and Bloods have a huge stake in the narco wars being waged in Mexico. If Sinaloa supply lines are attacked by competing cartels, or law enforce- ment deals further significant blows to the organization, it can leave the gangs without enough weed, coke, and heroin to meet demand on their corners throughout the United States.

“I read the papers looking at how Sinaloa’s doing, because if the Zetas or Juarez Cartel or Knights Templar end up on top, then we might have to find a way to get connected with their connect,” says Tony, referencing three of Sinaloa’s fiercest rivals. “When they got that Sinaloa homie [El Che], I ain’t going to lie . . . I was worried. But our connect went down there, got some assurances, and sure enough, everything got back on track soon enough. But, you know, shit changing down there all the time. It’s all about who’s on top today. Same as out here.”

The Bloods, too, get their coke from a city-based trafficker supplied by Sinaloa. In fact, the coke sold on Bloods corners in Hempstead and throughout the corridor usually comes from the same shipment the Crips purchase from.

But differences in the crews’ respective products do exist. Because they use different chemicals to cut their coke and dilute it to varying degrees, one gang’s batch of crack is usually stronger than their competitors. And their suppliers, although both connected to Sinaloa, are not equally reli- able. The Crips’ wholesaler is rarely late with a delivery. The Bloods’ sup- plier, however, is often delayed with his shipments, and sometimes fails to come up with the full amount ordered. Ice sticks with him only because he has access to some of the highest-quality coke anywhere in New York, and charges the lowest price in town.

“It’s what you might call, in the legitimate business world, a volatile market,” Ice, the accounting major, says of the drug trade. “Every step of the way, there’s uncertainty. In the beginning we had to find a supplier who could get what we needed and who we could trust. You know how long it took to find that? Two years. For two years we had to work with smaller dealers, people making promises they could get us more. Then, when they didn’t come through, we’d go up the chain to deal directly with the next guy. Eventually, we got in with some good people with Cali con- nections, through Steed, and we moved up to their main supplier, who was tapped into that good Sinaloa shit.

“That’s the ultimate, as far as I’m concerned. We compete with them [other gangs] on quality, and on pricing, too. As someone with a his- tory in the financial world, I take those things seriously. It doesn’t matter whether you selling drugs or legal merchandise. The rules of economics and smart business still apply.”