As the plane began its descent into Mexico City, Clay Roueche leaned back and took a deep breath. Ever since they'd left from Vancouver, a looming sense of dread had gnawed at him. He thought about the amulet around his neck, a thin gold chain holding three miniature scrolls blessed by a Buddhist monk to give him protective powers. He'd be just fine, he told himself.
Roueche glanced around the plane, confident that no one suspected that he was one of the continent's most wanted drug traffickers, leader of the UN gang, a multiethnic band of Asian, white and Middle-Eastern dealers who dominated the British Columbian weed trade, united by his bastardized version of the samurai code, whose motto was "Honor, loyalty, respect." His tattoos of fish swimming upstream and flying dragons on fire, emblems of his ties to Asian organized crime, were hidden beneath his clothes. His fellow passengers probably looked at him and saw an aging jock – a former tae kwon do champ going to flab, in a too-tight Affliction T-shirt and a bejeweled hoodie worth $1,500 – and figured he was some kind of Euro-trash goon on holiday. Roueche smiled at the thought. He liked when people didn't know who he was. He called this "ninja mode."
His girlfriend noticed him fidgeting and asked if he wanted to trade seats. "That's all right," he told her. She was a "square" in gang parlance, meaning she went to college and had little idea how Roueche paid for the diamond-and-jade necklace she liked to wear or her Gucci purse. He liked that too. The less she knew, he figured, the better.
The plan was they'd stop in Mexico City and then fly on to Cancun, where he would attend a wedding of one of his gang members and shore up his connections with the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful drug-trafficking organizations in the world.
As he and his girlfriend exited the plane, two armed federates asked for their passports. "What is going on?" his girlfriend said, looking up at him. Roueche told her it would be fine, but a sense of panic began to swell inside him. "You've been denied entrance into Mexico," one of the cops said. "You'll have to get on a flight back to Canada."
A half hour later, he was standing alone at the gate of an American Airlines flight bound for Vancouver, with a layover in Dallas. He knew that as soon as they landed in Texas, ICE agents would be waiting for him. With only one federale watching him, he decided to make a run for it, and took off down the terminal.
"Señor!" the cop yelled. "Señor! No! No!" Roueche started dialing the number of his girlfriend as he ran, trying to figure out what the Mexican authorities had done with her. He didn't get far before five more cops emerged and led him back to his plane. Minutes later, sitting in coach with a U.S. marshal watching his every move, he began texting bank-account codes to his associates in Vancouver, hoping they could get his money out before it was too late.
As soon as the plane landed in Dallas, police took him into custody. Anyone watching from the gate wouldn't have appreciated the significance of the arrest, but a year later, on December l6th, 2009, the U.S. attorney for Seattle put it in the proper context. The court, prosecutors argued, always heard stories about "the shadowy 'main guy' who calls the shots for the organization." The man standing before them was that phantom, a global don sitting atop a multimillion-dollar empire. Roueche may not have looked like it, but he was one of the most significant drug traffickers the U.S. had ever captured.
There are a few places on Earth where drugs have played a more transformative role than marijuana has in British Columbia. Over the past 20 years, the province has become synonymous with an extremely potent strain of weed known as B.C. Bud, which is arguably the best pot in North America. Roueche owed his success to two things: the global demand for B.C. Bud, which spawned a $7 billion industry, and a liberal local government that until recently rarely cracked down on guys like him. "When I was growing up, it didn't seem like the cops cared," Roueche told me when I met with him earlier this year in prison.
More drugs flowed through the port of Vancouver than just about anywhere else on the West Coast, but people in the business rarely shot at one another, which is why the government didn't seem to mind that Hastings Street hosted the largest open-air drug market on the continent. For potheads, the southern reaches of the province took on the mythic aspects of a hippie Shangri-La, a place where the weed grew so thick you could smell it 100 yards away. In the ski town of Nelson, once dubbed the marijuana capital of North America, they liked to say that if you couldn't score a dime bag within 10 minutes, you were already high.
Over more than a decade of running his operation, Roueche transformed the mom-and-pop B.C. Bud business into big business. Not content to move small loads across the border, or do anything quietly, he professionalized the industry the same way Pablo Escobar had done decades before in Colombia, albeit on a much smaller scale, using helicopters, float planes and tractor-trailers to move an estimated 20 tons (or $120 million) of weed a year into the U.S. Roueche's particular stroke of business genius was to realize he could parlay B.C. Bud into cocaine from the cartels. At one point, he was laundering a half million dollars a week in drug profits, expanding his operations into Chicago, Texas and New York.
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