Pubdate: Mon, 9 Mar 2009
Source: USA Today (US)
Page: 3A
Copyright: 2009 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Authors: Larry Copeland and Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY


Justice Dept. Says City Is Main Drug-Trafficking Center for All of 
the Eastern U.S.

ATLANTA -- In a city where Coca Cola, United Parcel Service and Home 
Depot are the titans of industry, there are new powerful forces on 
the block: Mexican drug cartels.

Their presence and ruthless tactics are largely unknown to most here. 
Yet, of the 195 U.S. cities where Mexican drug-trafficking 
organizations are operating, federal law enforcement officials say 
Atlanta has emerged as the new gateway to the troubled Southwest border.

Rival drug cartels, the same violent groups warring in Mexico for 
control of routes to lucrative U.S. markets, have established Atlanta 
as the principal distribution center for the entire eastern U.S., 
according to the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center.

In fiscal year 2008, federal drug authorities seized more 
drug-related cash in Atlanta -- about $70 million -- than any other 
region in the country, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) records show.

This year, more than $30 million has been intercepted in the Atlanta 
area -- far more than the $19 million in Los Angeles and $18 million 
in Chicago.

Atlanta has not seen a fraction of the violence that engulfs much of 
northern Mexico, but law enforcement officials are increasingly 
concerned about the cartels' expanding operations here.

"The same folks who are rolling heads in the streets of Ciudad 
Juarez" -- El Paso's Mexican neighbor -- "are operating in Atlanta. 
Here, they are just better behaved," says Jack Killorin, who heads 
the Office of National Drug Control Policy's federal task force in Atlanta.

The same regional features that appeal to legitimate corporate 
operations -- access to transportation systems and proximity to major 
U.S. cities -- have lured the cartels, Atlanta U.S. Attorney David 
Nahmias says.

An added attraction for the cartels, say Nahmias and Rodney Benson, 
the DEA's Atlanta chief, is the explosive growth of the Hispanic community.

Nahmias calls suburban Gwinnett County, about 30 miles northeast of 
Atlanta, the "epicenter" of the region's drug activity.

Gwinnett's Hispanic population surged from 8,470 in 1990 to 64,137 in 
2000, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Now, 17% of the county's 
776,000 people are Hispanic.

"You see Mexican drug-trafficking operations deploying 
representatives to hide within these communities in plain sight," 
Benson says. "They were attempting to blend into the same communities 
as those who were hard-working, law-abiding people."

The cartel representatives here range from the drivers, packagers and 
money counters to senior figures in the drug trade.

"We've got direct linkages between cartel representatives who take 
their orders from cartel leadership in Mexico," Benson says.

)From the border, shipments of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine 
and heroin are routed over land to Atlanta for storage in a network 
of stash houses. They are then moved to distribution operations in 
the Carolinas, Tennessee, the Mid-Atlantic, New York and New England.

Cash is generally moved over the same routes back to the Atlanta 
area, where balance sheets are reconciled. The bundles of money are 
turned over to transportation units for bulk shipments back to 
Mexico, Benson says.

Although the level of drug-related violence in Mexico has not 
surfaced in the Atlanta area, recent incidents have raised concerns 
among law enforcement officials.

Last July, for example, a Rhode Island man who allegedly owed 
$300,000 to Atlanta-based traffickers was found chained to a wall in 
the basement of a Lilburn, Ga., home, located in western Gwinnett County.

Benson says the man had been blindfolded, gagged and beaten. Federal 
investigators, who were alerted to the location, later found the man 
alive but severely dehydrated. Three Mexican nationals fled the house 
when authorities approached. All three were captured and a cache of 
weapons, including an assault rifle, was seized.

"There is no doubt in my mind that ... we certainly saved his life," 
Benson says.

About the same time last year, another man was kidnapped in Gwinnett 
County for non-payment of drug proceeds. When traffickers went to 
pick up what they thought was a $2 million ransom, shots were 
exchanged between the traffickers and police who were working with 
the victim's family. One of the suspects was killed and the other 
arrested, Benson says.

Killorin says much of the violence has been related to similar 
incidents of "intra-cartel discipline" and has not spilled into the streets.

There is no mistaking the groups' influence.

"We know they're here," Gwinnett County Police Cpl. Illana Spellman 
says, adding that the area's access to interstate highways is a major 
lure. "Geographically, it's set up perfectly for these kinds of activities." 
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