LAWRENCEVILLE - Federal officials Monday announced what they believe to be the third-largest drug bust in the country this year and one of the top in metro-Atlanta history.
The find happened last week when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized a record amount of drugs buried in a Buford backyard.
The bust rounded up four suspects and 187 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, also known as "ice," and 41 kilograms (about 90 pounds) of cocaine during a raid last Wednesday when agents acted on a search warrant related to a drug trafficking ring operating in the Atlanta area.
"This seizure is another stark reminder that the Atlanta area has become a major national hub for drug trafficking activity, including trafficking in the potent methamphetamine that poses the greatest new drug threat to our Georgia communities," U.S. Attorney David E. Nahmias said. "The DEA and other law enforcement agents working on this case are to be commended for disrupting a major trafficking organization and for finding an enormous quantity of crystal meth literally buried behind a house in a residential area, along with dozens of kilos of cocaine inside."
At a news conference Monday, officials said the drugs have a combined street value of at least $25 million.
"We will not rest until methamphetamine becomes just another chapter in the history of drug abuse," said Sherri Strange, the DEA's special agent in charge.
At about noon Wednesday, agents set up a surveillance on 6251 Suwanee Dam Road in Buford, anticipating the execution a federal search warrant, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.
At about 10:10 p.m. U.S. Magistrate Judge C. Christopher Hagy signed a search warrant, and about the same time agents observed Enrique Medina walk toward a wooded area in the backyard of the residence. He was reportedly putting on work gloves.
In the wooded area, Medina pulled out a flashlight and illuminated the area where the agents were waiting. When he saw the agents, he reportedly ran back to the house, and then agents saw him try to flee, along with Eduardo Castro Torres, a.k.a. "Damian," 43, of Michoacan, Mexico, who is also a resident of California, and Julio Ruesga Barajas, a.k.a. "Julio," 28, of Santa Ana, Calif.
Agents caught the three men after a foot chase, while others executed the search warrant.
During the search, agents found the drugs inside large duffle bags which were buried inside six large trash cans in the area where Medina, 25, of Madalena, Mexico, had approached while putting on gloves.
Also arrested was Ignacio Castro Torres, a.k.a. "Nacho," 39, of Buford. All four were charged by criminal complaint with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and cocaine.
At the property, agents also found a money counter and digital scales buried in a Rubbermaid container on the side of the garage.
Inside the garage, officials seized a large sum of money in a clear plastic, vacuum-sealed bag. The bag was marked with "#44" and "30,000," numbers that match a notebook, found inside a hidden compartment of a Nissan Quest, which is believed to be a detailed account of transactions involving drugs and an account of millions of dollars in drug proceeds.
In the front right bedroom, agents seized an open gun case with one magazine and five .45-caliber rounds, and two heat sealers and two boxes of heat-sealed plastic bags were found in the kitchen. Agents recovered seven cell phones from the premises.
Special Agent Ruth Porter-Whipple said the drug ring may not have been possible in the northern Atlanta suburbs 20 years ago, but the prevalence of hard-working Hispanics moving into the community allowed the suspects to blend in.
"We have a large Mexican population up there, so it's easy for the traffickers to assimilate," she said. "They can be under-the-radar, or at least they think so, because people look the same as them."
Porter-Whipple said the investigation is ongoing.
The case is being investigated by a DEA Strike Force group, which includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Department of Pardons and Parole, Georgia Department of Corrections, Fayette County Sheriff's Office and the DeKalb County Police Department.