|Former US attorney general Michael Mukasey (center) listened to a Georgia US attorney, David E. Nahmias. (The Journal And Constitution/ File)|
Atlanta suburbs attracting Mexican drug traffickers
Cartels lured by easy access to highways
LILBURN, Ga. - Azaleas bloom brightly in front of two-story homes on quiet streets where speed humps enforce the 20-mile-per-hour speed limit. Neighbors wave and smile at passersby, drawn to the booming Atlanta area by its accessible transportation, increasingly diverse population, and urban amenities.
But others are drawn to the quiet suburbs in the hopes that law enforcement or their business competitors will miss what happens inside - the movement of tons of illegal drugs, millions of dollars in cash, and sometimes lethal discipline of wayward employees.
"This county's awash in drugs," said Gwinnett County Assistant District Attorney Keith Miles.
The placid nature of Gwinnett County and nearby counties has drawn workers for Mexican drug cartels to suburbs like Lilburn, near Atlanta. Interstate 85 provides convenient transport, and the area's exploding Latino population makes it easy for Mexican traffickers to blend in.
Over the last five to seven years, the Atlanta area has become the main distribution hub to move drugs and cash throughout the East, Drug Enforcement Administration officials say. The cartels are drawn to Atlanta by the same conveniences that have attracted corporations here over the last decade or so - access to major transportation systems and proximity to large population centers.
But Georgia-based corporations don't bring with them the kind of disciplinary practices the cartel-affiliated workers have imported from Mexico. Dominican citizen Oscar Reynoso, 31, was lured to Lilburn from Rhode Island last July to settle a $300,000 debt to the Mexican Gulf cartel. Dehydrated, gagged, and badly beaten, Reynoso was found chained to a wall in a basement.
That same month, police in another Gwinnett County suburb shot and killed a suspected kidnapper as he tried to pick up a $2 million ransom owed to his cartel bosses.
Authorities have also won a string of high-profile drug busts in recent years, including Project Reckoning, which targeted the Gulf cartel, and Operation Xcellerator, which hit the Sinaloa cartel. In fiscal year 2008, federal authorities seized about $70 million in drug-related cash in Atlanta, more than any other region in the country, according to DEA records. Already this fiscal year in Atlanta they have seized about $34 million.
"We've seen this coming for a while, with bigger seizures of drugs and cash," Miles said.
Whereas five years ago a 1-kilogram cocaine seizure was a big deal, said District Attorney Danny Porter, it is common now for law enforcement officers to seize 10, 20, or even 50 kilograms in a single bust.
And while the overall number of drug cases has actually dropped, Porter said, the number of cases involving organized distribution groups has increased.
Chuvalo Truesdell, a DEA spokesman in Atlanta, said known Mexican drug cartel members have been arrested in the Atlanta area.
While the command and control structures tend to be complicated and compartmentalized, the basic operations of cartels are simple, said Rodney Benson, the DEA special agent in charge of Atlanta.
Drugs destined for Atlanta are brought from Mexico across the border into Texas in relatively small quantities - 20 to 25 kilograms - frequently hidden in secret compartments in personal or commercial vehicles. They are accumulated near the border, and then larger shipments are sent along Interstates 10, 20, and 40 to Atlanta, often in commercial trucks carrying legitimate cargo.
Once the drugs reach the Atlanta area, they are taken to stash houses and broken down into smaller shipments that are sent via interstate to cities like Miami, New York, and Detroit. Cash collected sent on the reverse journey back to Mexico.
Unlike the Colombian traffickers in south Florida in the 1980s, the Mexican cartels tend to keep a low profile, said Jack Killorin, director of a government program to fund drug-fighting efforts in the region.
"They tend not to be too bling and high living," he said. "They're very quiet, they try to stay hidden in the communities. They want to be low key."
Drug-fueled violence has increased in Mexico in response to President Felipe Calderon's crackdown after he took office in December 2006, and spillover violence is a rising fear.
The violence in the Atlanta area, like in other distribution hub cities, tends to be limited to those involved in the drug or human trafficking trade, authorities said.
But Miles said he thinks the violence is already increasing and cited about a dozen unsolved homicides in Gwinnett County that he believes are drug related.
"You don't have shootouts in the street, but who's to say that's not coming? I think it is," Miles said. "I see it getting worse before it gets better."