Drug Highway - I-85, Gwinnett suburbs provide many amenities for drug traffickers

LILBURN - Azaleas bloom brightly in front of two-story homes on quiet streets where speed humps enforce the 20 mph speed limit. Neighbors wave and smile at passers-by, drawn to the booming Atlanta area by its accessible transportation, increasingly diverse population and urban amenities.

But others are drawn to the quiet suburbs in the hopes that law enforcement or their business competitors will miss what happens inside - the movement of tons of illegal drugs, millions of dollars in cash and sometimes lethal discipline of wayward employees.

'This county's awash in drugs,' said Gwinnett County Assistant District Attorney Keith Miles.

The placid nature of Gwinnett County and other nearby counties has drawn workers for Mexican drug cartels to suburbs like Lilburn. Interstate 85 provides convenient transport, and the area's exploding Latino population makes it easy for Mexican traffickers to blend in.

Over the last five to seven years, the Atlanta area has become the main distribution hub to move drugs and cash throughout the East, Drug Enforcement Administration officials say. The cartels are drawn to Atlanta by the same conveniences that have attracted corporations here over the last decade or so - access to major transportation systems and proximity to large population centers.

But Georgia-based corporations don't bring with them the kind of disciplinary practices the cartel-affiliated workers have imported from Mexico. Dominican citizen Oscar Reynoso, 31, was lured to Lilburn from Rhode Island last July to settle a $300,000 debt to the Mexican Gulf Cartel. Dehydrated, gagged and badly beaten, Reynoso was found chained to a wall in a basement. The onslaught of law enforcement on the scene shocked neighbors, said resident Maria Ramos.

That same month, police in another Gwinnett County suburb shot and killed a suspected kidnapper as he tried to pick up a $2 million ransom owed to his cartel bosses.

Authorities have also made a string of high-profile drug busts in recent years, including Project Reckoning, which targeted the Gulf cartel, and Operation Xcellerator, which hit the Sinaloa cartel. In fiscal year 2008, federal authorities seized about $70 million in drug-related cash in Atlanta, more than any other region in the country, according to DEA records. Already this fiscal year in Atlanta they've seized about $34 million.

Project Reckoning alone seized $60 million and more than 40 tons of illegal drugs over nearly two years. That operation also resulted in the arrest of 175 people over two days, including 43 in the Atlanta area.

'We've seen this coming for a while, with bigger seizures of drugs and cash,' Miles said.

Whereas five years ago a 1-kilo cocaine seizure was a big deal, said District Attorney Danny Porter, it is common now for law enforcement officers to seize 10, 20 or even 50 kilos in a single bust.

And while the overall number of drug cases has actually dropped, Porter said, the number of cases involving organized distribution groups has increased.

Chuvalo Truesdell, a DEA spokesman in Atlanta, said known Mexican drug cartel members have been arrested in the Atlanta area.

While the command and control structures tend to be complicated and compartmentalized, the cartels' basic operations are simple, said Rodney Benson, the DEA special agent in charge of Atlanta.

Drugs destined for Atlanta are brought across the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas in relatively small quantities - 20 to 25 kilos - frequently hidden in secret compartments in personal or commercial vehicles. They are accumulated near the border, and then larger shipments are sent along Interstates 10, 20 and 40 to Atlanta, often in commercial trucks carrying legitimate cargo.

Once the drugs reach the Atlanta area, they are taken to stash houses and broken down into smaller shipments that are sent via Interstates 75, 77 and 85 to cities like Miami, New York and Detroit. Cash collected is heat sealed in plastic to prevent tampering and sent on the reverse journey back to Mexico.

In suburban Atlanta, Mexican drug trafficking organizations generally rent nondescript houses in middle-class neighborhoods in suburbs like Lilburn. They often have one house for storing and processing drugs, one house for storing and processing money and a third for conducting transactions, so when an arrest happens at one house, they don't lose everything, Porter said.

Unlike the Colombian traffickers in south Florida in the 1980s, the Mexican cartels tend to keep a low profile, said Jack Killorin, director of a government program to fund drug-fighting efforts in the region.

'They tend not to be too bling and high-living,' he said. 'They're very quiet, they try to stay hidden in the communities. They want to be low key. They prefer not to be observed. They're serious businessmen - they bring their drugs here and money back, and that's what they focus on.'

Drug-fueled violence has increased in Mexico in response to President Felipe Calderon's crackdown after he took office in December 2006, and spillover violence is a rising fear.

The violence in the Atlanta area, like in other distribution hub cities, tends to be limited to those involved in the drug or human trafficking trade, authorities said.

But Miles said he thinks the violence is already increasing and cited about a dozen unsolved homicides in Gwinnett County that he believes are drug related. He cited a case in which two men apparently shot each other to death in a house where a money counter was found. As busts net increasingly large amounts of drugs and cash, he said, law enforcement officers are also finding more and bigger guns.

'You don't have shootouts in the street, but who's to say that's not coming? I think it is,' Miles said. 'I see it getting worse before it gets better.'

Atlanta was designated a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA, in 1995. The city's designation has been broadened over the last two years to include 12 counties in Georgia and five in North Carolina. The Atlanta HIDTA program, directed by Killorin, uses federal grant money to fund anti-drug efforts by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Porter said he believes the coordinated efforts are paying off, but he acknowledged some problems. While his office would often like to immediately arrest any dealer who's putting drugs on the street, federal authorities often want to hold off to use that smaller dealer as an entry into the operations so they can bring down a larger chunk of a cartel's network.

'That tension is always there and if we don't cooperate well there are issues,' Porter said. 'In the face of what we're dealing with, though, we have to work together and put our differences aside.'