Police say drug hauls slowing

LAWRENCEVILLE - Illegal drugs still course the veins of Gwinnett County, but apparently in smaller quantities that are less risky for cartels and lower-level pushers alike.

A special Gwinnett police unit activated last year to combat the flow of drugs and dirty money on the county's highways is reporting a lull in the quantities of seizures this year.

The highway interdiction team - or H.I.T. - released mid-year statistics Tuesday that indicate drug traffickers are still active but are carrying less dope.

The team attributes the dip to their own prowess in combating Mexican cartels and other runners. Metro Atlanta and especially the nondescript, suburban environs of Gwinnett have earned the dubious reputation as springboards for Mexican drugs to the Eastern Seaboard in recent years.

"We're making more arrests but finding smaller amounts of drugs in each case," Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli said.

Formed in February 2008, the interdiction team is said to aggressively focus on Gwinnett's primary highways, especially Interstate 85. Since then, officials have reported seizures of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine - along with firearms and vehicles - worth in excess of $13 million. They've recorded more than 220 felony arrests.

But with nearly as many traffic stops this year (3,296) as in all of 2008 (3,432), the team has raked in roughly 80 percent less roadside drug seizures. It's a difference of about $11 million worth of drugs last year versus $2 million as of Tuesday.

It's a sharp decline, considering the tally of felony arrests between this year and last has risen from 102 arrests to 119, police said.

The team's statistics aren't necessarily a tell-all indicator of drug activity in Gwinnett.

Schiralli noted the team had a hand in roadside busts by other local and federal agencies that have scored $8.9 million in drugs this year. He balked at disclosing how many officers man the team and what their policing patterns are.

"They deal with a lot of Mexican cartels," he said. "(The team) keeps an unknown number (of officers) so they don't know our strength."

Statistics aside, police know it's hard to pinpoint when the total value of seized drugs might make a serious jump.

In a single bust last August, for instance, the team discovered 67 kilograms of cocaine stashed in a Jeep Cherokee on Interstate 85 in Suwanee. The worth of that haul was $6.7 million.

The alleged driver, Roberto Hernandez-Avila, 23, a native of Mexico living in Lawrenceville, awaits trial in Gwinnett on charges of trafficking cocaine and driving without a valid license.