Pubdate: Sun, 19 Apr 2009
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: A - 6
Copyright: 2009 The Associated Press
Author: Pauline Arrillaga, Associated Press


Columbiana, Ala. -- Five men dead in an apartment.

In a county that might see five homicides in an entire year, the call 
over the sheriff's radio revealed little about what awaited law 
enforcement at a sprawling apartment complex.

A type of crime, and criminal, once foreign to this landscape of 
blooming dogwoods had arrived in Shelby County. Sheriff Chris Curry 
felt it even before he laid eyes on the grisly scene. He called the 
state. The FBI. The Drug Enforcement Administration. Anyone he could think of.

"I don't know what I've got," he warned them. "But I'm gonna need help."

The five dead men lay scattered about the living room of one 
apartment in a complex of hundreds.

Some of the men showed signs of torture: Burns seared into their 
earlobes revealed where modified jumper cables had been clamped as an 
improvised electrocution device. Adhesive from duct tape used to bind 
the victims still clung to wrists and faces, from mouths to noses.

As a final touch, throats were slashed open, post-mortem.

It didn't take long for Curry and federal agents to piece together 
clues: A murder scene, clean save for the crimson-turned-brown stains 
now spotting the carpet. Just a couple of mattresses tossed on the 
floor. It was a typical stash house.

But the cut throats? Some sort of ghastly warning.

Curry would soon find this was a retaliation hit over drug money with 
ties to Mexico's notorious Gulf Cartel.

Curry also found out firsthand what federal drug enforcement agents 
have long understood. The drug war, with the savagery it brings, 
knows no bounds. It had landed in his backyard, in the foothills of 
the Appalachians, in Alabama's wealthiest county, around the corner 
from The Home Depot.

One thousand, twenty-four miles from the Mexico border.

Forget for a moment the phrase itself - "War on Drugs" - much-derided 
since President Richard Nixon coined it. Wars eventually end, after 
all. And many Americans wonder today, nearly four decades later, will 
this one ever be won?

In Mexico, the fight has become a real war. An estimated 45,000 
Mexican army troops now patrol territories long ruled by 
narcotraffickers. Places like Tijuana, in the border state of Baja 
California. Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from Texas. Ciudad Juarez, 
next door to El Paso. But also the central state of Michoacan and 
resort cities like Acapulco, an hour south of the place where, months 
ago, the decapitated bodies of 12 soldiers were discovered with a 
sign that read:

"For every one of mine that you kill, I will kill 10."

An estimated 10,560 people have been killed since 2006, the year 
Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office and launched his 
campaign against the organized crime gangs that move cocaine, 
methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin to a vast U.S. market. Consider 
that fewer than 4,300 American service members have died in the 
six-year war in Iraq.

The cartels are fighting each other for power, and the Calderon 
administration for their very survival. Never before has a Mexican 
president gone after these narco-networks with such force.

"He has deployed troops. He has deployed national police. He's trying 
to vet and create units ... that can effectively adjudicate and turn 
back the years of corruption," says John Walters, who directed the 
Office of National Drug Control Policy for seven years under 
President George W. Bush. "These groups got more powerful, and when 
there was less visible destruction, it was because they were in 
control; they were stable. Now, he has destabilized them."

Walters sees this as an "opportunity to change - for better, or worse 
- - the history of our two countries fundamentally."

And now the cartels have brought the fight to the United States: In 
230 U.S. cities, the Mexican organizations maintain distribution hubs 
or supply drugs to local distributors, according to the Justice 
Department's National Drug Intelligence Center.

Places like Miami and other longtime transportation points along the 
California, Arizona and Texas borders. But also Twin Falls, Idaho; 
Billings, Mont.; Wichita, Kan.; Phoenix; St. Louis; Milwaukee.

Even Shelby County, Alabama.

The quintuple homicide occurred just outside the Birmingham city 
limits and a half-hour's drive north of Columbiana, the county seat.

"We became a hub without knowing it," Sheriff Curry says. "We've got 
to wake people up because we're seeing it all over the place. It is 
now firmly located throughout this country."

The talk of the day is "spillover" violence - at once the stuff of 
sensationalism but also a very real concept.

In Phoenix, the nation's fifth-largest city, police report close to 
1,000 kidnappings over the past three years tied to border smuggling, 
be it human or drugs or both. The rise parallels a shift in illegal 
immigrant crossings from California and Texas to the Arizona border, 
where many of the same gangs transporting people transport drugs. The 
perpetrators are often after ransom money, for a drug load lost or 
from a family that paid to have a relative brought over.

The problem has earned the city the unfortunate distinction of 
"America's kidnapping capital" in some media accounts, even though 
the incidents are mostly out of sight and out of mind for law-abiding 
residents and overall crime, including homicides, was down last year.

In Atlanta, which has grown into a major distribution hub for the 
Gulf Cartel, trafficker-on-trafficker violence has become more common 
as the cartels, in the face of Calderon's crackdown, impose tighter 
payment schedules and grow less tolerant of extending credit, says 
Rodney Benson, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration there.

Benson blames that, in part, for the much-publicized kidnapping last 
summer in the middle-class Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, not far from 
Stone Mountain Park. Acting on a tip, agents found a Dominican man 
chained to a wall in the basement of a house, severely dehydrated and 
badly beaten. He had been lured from Rhode Island because he 
apparently owed $300,000 in drug debts.

"Money wasn't paid," Benson says. "They were going to kill him."

Greg Borland heads the DEA office in Birmingham. Since the murders 
last August, he's seen the fear in his neighbors' eyes, and faced 
their questions: How did this happen? Why here? Why now?

"They're absolutely shocked. To me it's like: Why? It's everywhere. 
Unless you have a 50-foot wall around your town, no one should feel 
immune from this. The citizen in me says, 'I can't believe this is 
happening in my town.' But the cop in me says, 'Well, it's only a 
matter of time' ... because there are high-level drug traffickers in the area.

"Maybe," he says, "it was only by the grace of God that it hadn't 
happened already."

Those in the know understand that this kind of violence is nothing 
new. In border communities that have long been trafficking hubs it's 
uncommon not to hear of a drug-related crime on the evening news.

What's new is where that violence is erupting, where distribution 
cells and hubs and sub-hubs have surfaced. How an apartment in 
Alabama became the site of a drug hit in many ways tells the story of 
the narco-trade in America in 2009, and of the challenges we face in 
combatting a blight that has spread to big cities and small all 
across the land.

Before Aug. 20, 2008, when the five men were found, the assumption 
had been that the big drug hauls were passing through Shelby County 
and on to cities with larger markets.

Alabama had long had its share of street dealers. Homegrown pot 
passed hands. Then powder cocaine and crack. Soon meth labs cropped 
up here and there. "Just a local issue," says Curry.

"There weren't really any traffickers in our county. But over time 
it's escalated into a sophisticated transportation structure that 
moves marijuana, moves powder cocaine and now moves crystal meth."

First came the rise of the Mexican cartel, brought about in the late 
'80s and early '90s after authorities cracked down on Colombian 
traffickers and choked off routes along the Caribbean and in South 
Florida. The Colombians aligned with the Mexicans for transportation, 
then began paying their Mexican subcontractors in cocaine.

As more Colombian traffickers were brought down, the Mexicans took 
over both transportation and distribution. A decade ago, 60 percent 
of the cocaine entering the United States came through Mexico. Today 
that figure is 90 percent.

Texas and other border states became primary distribution hubs. Greg 
Bowden, who heads the FBI's violent crime task force in Birmingham, 
worked four years in the Texas border city of Brownsville. He 
remembers cases involving Alabama dealers who would fly into Houston, 
rent a car, pick up loads at a warehouse or mall parking lot and 
drive back home.

"(Distributors) felt comfortable in Texas. That was their home base, 
and has been for a long time. Now," says Bowden, "they're comfortable 
here, in Memphis, in Atlanta. They moved their home bases to these 
little pockets."

One reason for that shift is the ability these days to "blend in in 
plain sight," as the Atlanta DEA chief puts it. The flood of Latino 
immigrants into American communities to work construction and plant 
jobs helped provide cover for traffickers looking to expand into new 
markets or build hubs in quiet suburbs with fewer law officers than 
the big cities.

Shelby has long been Alabama's fastest-growing county, with its 
proximity to Birmingham, good schools and a growing corporate 
corridor along Highway 280. The number of Latinos grew 126 percent 
from 2000 to 2007. It was once rare to see a Latino face at the local 
Wal-Mart or gas station. Now, dozens upon dozens of Latino day 
laborers line Lorna Road in the northern part of the county.

As Bowden says, "You don't stand out."

But there is another reason this area, and others, have become what 
some agents call "sub-hubs."

With an estimated 4.9 million trucks crossing into the United States 
from Mexico every year, tractor-trailers have become a transportation 
mode of choice among traffickers. Drugs head north, but weapons and 
cash also head back south - like the $400,000 Border Patrol agents 
found on April 2 near Las Cruces, N.M., stashed in the refrigeration 
unit of a semi.

Shelby County is a trucking mecca, with highways 65, 20, 59 and 459 
running east to Atlanta, north to Nashville, south to New Orleans, 
west to Dallas. Once reluctant to haul drug shipments too far beyond 
a border state, drivers are willing to take more chances now, because 
there are so many trucks on the road, Bowden says.

Since January, 27 people were sentenced in Alabama federal court in 
just one case for using tractor-trailers to transport cocaine and 
marijuana from Mexico across the border to Brownsville, then up 
through Birmingham on Interstate 65 to northern Alabama for 
distribution. Investigators seized 77 pounds of cocaine during the 
investigation - more than the DEA seized in the entire state of 
Alabama in all of 1999. The scheme, according to an indictment, had 
operated since 2004.

Amid all of this, an operation moved into Shelby County, leading to 
the call on Aug. 20.

A simple welfare check brought deputies to the Cahaba Lakes 
Apartments off Highway 280, down the road from upscale Vestavia 
Hills, whose motto is "A Better Place to Live."

The victims were Latino, all illegal immigrants. Interviews with 
family members and associates helped investigators piece together a 
sketchy portrait of what happened.

Agents described it as friendly competition turned deadly among a 
group of distributors from Atlanta and Birmingham that often sold and 
shared drug loads when one or the other group was running low. At 
some point, about a half-million in drug money went missing. One 
group suspected the other of taking it, and went after the five men 
at Cahaba Lakes.

The money was never found.

Whether an order came directly from Mexico, or the decision was made 
down the food chain, investigators don't know.

The DEA's Borland notes that making a direct connection between the 
street-level distributors charged in the killing and a specific 
cartel boss back in Mexico isn't easy in a business with so many 
players at various levels.

"We don't have canceled checks of their dues payments to the cartels. 
But we know that they were moving large quantities of drugs, which 
are probably brought in here under the supervision of the Gulf 
Cartel, because the Gulf Cartel is the dominant one here," he says.

"That money was supposed to be moving ... and it disappeared. So the 
attempt was to locate where was the money and who took it?" Curry 
says. "It was a contract hit, ordered to be carried out and paid for."

Since then, Curry has pushed aside concerns about resources and 
assigned one deputy to a DEA task force, another to work with the 
FBI. At the behest of the Department of Homeland Security, he joined 
in a conference call with police chiefs and sheriffs in border states 
to discuss what he now calls "a common problem."

And he answers, as candidly as possible, his citizens' questions when 
they ask him about this "new" threat.

"People want to have a comfort zone, and if they have to confront the 
realities of how rough life really is, that doesn't sit well," he 
says. "It scares them. And they don't want to be scared. South of our 
border: gunfights, violence - it is a normal, accepted, expected 
behavior. That has now moved into our borders."

Ask just about any DEA agent or expert who keeps a close watch on 
drug trafficking, and they'll cringe at the use of the word "war." 
They'll tell you, flat out, that no, it's not likely ever to be won. 
Just as there will always be robberies and rapes and homicides, there 
will always be narcotrafficking.

So they take their victories where they can. And there have been victories.

Heads of cartels have been toppled. Juan Garcia Abrego, former chief 
of the Gulf Cartel and once on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, is 
serving 11 life terms in a Colorado federal prison after his 1996 
arrest in Mexico and extradition to the United States. His successor, 
Osiel Cardenas, awaits trial in Houston after his 2007 extradition from Mexico.

These handovers have become almost routine under Calderon, who 
reversed long-standing practice and allowed more Mexicans to be tried 
in the United States. Last year, he extradited a record 95 wanted 
criminals, including several high-ranking members of the 
Tijuana-based Arrellano-Felix cartel.

In February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the arrest 
of more than 750 people as part of "Operation Xcellerator," which 
targeted Mexico's most powerful drug organization, the Sinaloa 
Cartel. Another 175 were arrested last fall as part of "Project 
Reckoning," an investigation into the Gulf Cartel.

President Obama has promised to dispatch hundreds of additional 
agents to the border, along with more gear and drug-sniffing dogs. 
"If the steps that we've taken do not get the job done," he said, 
"then we will do more."

"More" may well come in the form of more direct aid to Mexico. In her 
first visit to Mexico as secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton 
said the White House would seek $80 million to help Mexico buy 
Blackhawk helicopters. That's on top of a $1.3 billion Bush-era 
initiative providing drug-fighting aircraft and equipment to Mexico 
over the next three years.

But the answer to this problem is as complex as the problem itself. 
Enforcement, money and equipment alone aren't enough. In Mexico, the 
challenges run deep as corruption has infected almost every level of 
government. In the United States, the true remedy is just as 
daunting: curbing the appetite that fuels all of this.

"We are still throwing the cops at a problem that is well beyond 
that," says George Friedman, who heads the global intelligence firm 
Stratfor. "It is a major geopolitical problem. We've been moving into 
a situation where the Mexican government is no longer the most 
powerful force in Mexico.

"It's a mess, not a war," says Friedman.

Many months after the Shelby County case, the Alabama sheriff still 
grapples with the ugly reality of what the mess means for him and his 

He had his own victory, of sorts. Arrests were swift, and six 
suspects now are held without bond in the Shelby County Jail charged 
with capital murder. One owned a tire shop, another was a barber - 
more evidence to authorities of how bad guys can blend in.

Still, it is a victory without call for celebration, because Curry 
wonders when and where it will happen again.

"This is not an isolated incident. It is a standard business practice 
with this group of people, and it is simply going to be repeated," he 
says. "I can't predict whether it's going to be repeated here or not, 
but it's going to be repeated in communities throughout the United 
States whenever these disagreements occur." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake