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Police: Drug busts up
Gang arrests also increase

LAWRENCEVILLE - Weeks after federal authorities christened Gwinnett as the region's drug epicenter, local police Friday trumpeted gains in drug seizures and gang arrests by two specialized units.

Year-to-date statistics - ending in July - show Gwinnett's Narcotics Task Force seized more than $42.7 million worth of drugs, a 12.4 percent increase since 2007 when police confiscated $38 million in drugs. The most recent numbers were bolstered by the July 17 seizure of $7.7 million worth of marijuana inside a Duluth "grow-house," authorities said.

"We are on pace this year to experience a fourth consecutive year of record drug seizures in Gwinnett County," said Maj. Bart Hulsey, commander of the Special Investigations Section of the Gwinnett Police Department.

Meanwhile, the county's Gang Task Force - established in 1999 - reported 640 arrests since March. Gwinnett police spokeswoman Cpl. Illana Spellman could not provide 2007 numbers for comparison purposes.

"The numbers for last year in the same time range are not accurate due to record documentation issues that have since been corrected," she said.

Authorities attribute the seemingly large amount of arrests to an internal strategy which added 10 new officers to the task force, bolstering the unit to 35 full-time officers.

Working with federal agencies such as the FBI and ICE also appears to be paying off for

Gwinnett, statistics show.

The FBI's Joint Gang Task Force - on which two Gwinnett police officers serve - has made arrests of 40 "active criminal street gang members" who are in the process of being deported for being in the country illegally, according to a Police Department news release.

Spellman said gangs in Gwinnett vary in terms of operations; some run drugs, while other groups stick to robberies and burglaries.

Friday's announcement follows an especially violent 90 days in which several competing Hispanic drug cartels in the county kidnapped rivals for large payouts, a practice that was once relegated to Mexico, authorities say. This prompted federal officials to label Gwinnett as the region's drug hub, citing its access to Interstate 85 and its growing Hispanic population as major factors. In 2008, there have been nine drug-related kidnappings.

"These traffickers unleash ruthless forms of violence in order to protect and defend their drugs and cash," Rod Benson, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Atlanta office, said in late July.

Spellman said the Police Department is fully aware of the eroding situation.

"We're not going to deny there's a drug problem or that there's a gang problem," she said. "We're trying to get a foothold on the situation and address it."