ATLANTA - The larger Atlanta area is becoming a hub for crystal methamphetamine manufactured in Mexico, smuggled in the southwestern U.S. and distributed on the East Coast, federal authorities said Wednesday.
"As a distribution hub, Atlanta is as big as anywhere," U.S. Attorney David Nahmias said Wednesday. "Numbers are up exponentially in north Georgia."
In less than 10 days, Nahmias has announced two separate seizures of several hundred pounds of meth in two northeast Georgia towns, less than 50 miles from Atlanta and 16 miles apart.
In both cases, several of the suspects arrested and charged with possessing the drug are from Mexico.
While authorities have not ruled out the possibility the two cases are related, there are enough major drug rings in the region that they could have operated separately, Nahmias said.
The seizure announced Wednesday, the largest in state history, consisted of 341 pounds of meth found early last week at a Gainesville house where three brothers, all illegal immigrants from Mexico, lived, Nahmias said. Several packages with meth were stashed in coolers buried in the backyard.
"Each record meth seizure we make is an unfortunate reminder that north Georgia has become a central hub for the meth epidemic that is afflicting not only our communities but much of the nation," Nahmias said. "The problem is enormous and growing."
Wednesday's news concerned a bust made Aug. 21 - the same day authorities announced a Gwinnett County raid.
Last week, federal authorities announced they had seized 187 pounds of meth buried in the backyard of a rural home at 6251 Suwanee Dam Road in Buford. At that time, officials believed the drug bust to be the third-largest in the country this year and one of the top in metro Atlanta history.
The bust rounded up four suspects and 187 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, also known as "ice," and 41 kilograms of cocaine during a raid when agents acted on a search warrant. Officials said the drugs had a combined street value of at least $25 million.
The more recent investigation, led by U.S. Forest Service officials, began when a helicopter flying for the state Drug Task Force in June spotted marijuana plants cultivated inside Chattahoochee National Forest in Union County, Nahmias said.
That's also an increasing problem for the East Coast, said Russ Arthur of the U.S. Forest Service, which led the investigation.
Authorities found the three brothers and another illegal Mexican immigrant cultivating a 1-acre field with 300 marijuana plants, which have since been eradicated.
Authorities searched the house where they found the meth as well as a gun. In uncut form, the seized meth has a value of at least $17 million and authorities estimate it would have sold on the street for as much as $50 million.
Two men, Alejandro Martinez-Menera and Arnulfo Pineda-Rivera, were arrested. Martinez-Menera's two brothers, Socorro and Sacarias Martinez-Menera, are considered fugitives.
All have been charged with manufacturing the marijuana plants. The three brothers are also charged with possessing meth with the intent of distributing it.