Music thumps from inside a small Mesa Mexican restaurant. A party of more than 100 chats loudly in the bar area, while girls in body-hugging clothing and boys in baggy pants and shiny jewelry stand outside in the chilly night air waiting to get in.
But while the teens wait in line for the party, police officers hide around the corner in the darkness.
“Police! Get down on the ground!” officers yell as they race to the front of the restaurant.
Cops in black uniforms storm the party. A crowd of screaming teens and young adults tries to escape.
Police surround the building and the group is trapped inside, lying in piles on the ground with their hands above their heads.
“I want my money back!” shouts one angry partygoer.
“Give me my money back!” another joins in.
Mesa police and Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control officers have just raided Mariscos Ensenada, a restaurant near Alma School Road and University Drive.
By the time the night is over, authorities will have arrested about 60 kids, seized three handguns and found the restaurant in violation of numerous liquor laws.
Their reason for the bust: party crews.
Typically made up of gang members or their friends, party crews are highly organized groups of older teens who throw large parties, where for $3 to $10, underage kids come in and drink. Their proceeds often fund more parties, announced over cell phone text messages or in some cases, on MySpace.com, an Internet “social” site popular with teens.
But it isn’t just the underage drinking that worries police — it’s the violence that often comes with it.
“It’s not about having a party anymore,” said Phoenix Lt. Jacqui MacConnell “It’s about (them) shooting each other and killing each other.”
As police prepared to raid a Mesa party crew event at a house on Jan. 18, their planning was cut short.
“Shots fired,” said a police radio dispatcher.
Officers responded [*CORRECTION: to a drive-by shooting near Alma School Road and University Drive] that sent bullets into the air.
Police already on alert in the area quickly arrested an 18-year-old man.
This time, no one was hurt. But last year, similar shootings led to bloodshed in East Valley cities.
In July, gunfire pelted a crowd outside a Tempe party crew hip-hop event, killing 19-year-old Deon Gibson of Phoenix.
Two months later, Dobson High School football player Raegan Pride was shot and killed outside a Mesa strip mall at another party crew event.
And in Chandler last year, two shootings outside restaurants also were connected to party crews.
A Mesa police detective, we’ll call him Smith (the Tribune is withholding his full name because of threats to his life), has investigated party crews in Mesa since they began popping up a couple of years ago. He said he has seen Phoenix gang members visit the East Valley and start trouble.
“For whatever reason, we can’t figure out why they’re partying out here,” Smith said.
But for some of the partygoers, the answer comes down to safety.
“It’s kinda crazy over there (in Phoenix). People are getting shot and killed there every day,” said 18-year-old Phoenix resident Taria Smith, who was detained but later released after the drive-by.
Chandler police gang Sgt. Greg Howarth said he has seen “a lot” of party crews coming into the East Valley from south Phoenix, but that some of the groups are homegrown.
Police said in some cases a local party crew will host an event and an out-of-town rival crew will do a drive-by shooting out of jealousy or in an attempt to steal the spotlight.
The risk of violence not only worries police, but also concerns the party organizers themselves.
“I don’t know what happened to Mesa. When I was younger that only happened in Phoenix,” said 25-year-old Martin, a party promoter who asked that his last name be withheld for fear of being arrested. “Last year, around ... my birthday (in Mesa) a little girl just got shot.”
Despite inherent dangers and the possibility of getting arrested, party crews are drawing crowds.
Sgt. Wes Kuhl and other liquor law enforcement officers worked with Mesa police during the Jan. 18 raid, pulling out kids one-by-one for ID checks and Breathalyzer tests.
Yemi Snyder, 22, was released after proving he was old enough to consume alcohol.
“I go to them for the females,” Snyder said of the parties. “There’s not really much going on in Mesa. ... Most of the time we stay close to home to try to keep it safe.”
Snyder said he has been to other parties where police have arrived, but it doesn’t stop him from trying to have fun.
But 29-year-old Raymond Aguilera, who said he’s a teacher, wasn’t expecting the police at the party. In fact, he was angry that officers ruined his night and detained his friend.
“They were (expletive) with everyone in there,” Aguilera said. “I’m very unhappy that not only did I bring my respected friend over here, but now he’s sitting in handcuffs.”
A 19-year-old promoter, or organizer, of the party who goes by the name “Infamous Issac” said security was checking people’s licenses at the door before police arrived to ensure partygoers were 21 and over.
“All I do is make up some fliers and have it sent,” the promoter said. “I use MySpace, I use the radio and I use magazines.”
The promoter said he’s not a party crew, but admits he started his career that way when he was 16 by throwing parties at his house.
“A lot of people in Mesa know who I am,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t done house parties in a while because officer Smith is getting my ass.”
Smith meets every few months with detectives around the Valley to stay current on party crew trends and to learn how the groups are operating in other cities. He is known as one of the top experts on the issue in the East Valley and is also well-known among the party crew crowd whom he routinely arrests.
Smith said party crews in the past have broken into vacant homes to hold their events, but have recently grown more sophisticated, renting legitimate nightclubs, restaurants and bars.
“As we evolve and figure out what they’re doing, they evolve,” Smith said. “Oftentimes, they start out of legitimate parties.”
And sometimes officers don’t always know if the event is related to party crews.
“The problem you have with party crews is that when your units aren’t on, there’s always a chance that officers don’t catch that it’s a party crew party,” Howarth said. “If you rent out a business then patrol officers can catch that it’s a party crew party.”
Tempe police Sgt. Mike Horn said authorities go after businesses hosting party crew parties that don’t abide by liquor permits or city ordinances.
However, the fate of Mariscos Ensenada in Mesa — where police said they found about 100 violations — is still unknown.
“Finding 100 kids in a bar is pretty severe, so (the owner) could face fines, suspensions or possible revocation in this event,” said Kuhl.
Kuhl said the restaurant was in violation because it operated as a bar with minors inside unaccompanied by parents or legal guardians.
Kuhl added, “He’s acting more of a bar than a restaurant and, therefore, he has to follow the bar rules.”