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Drug bust defendants flood county court

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett County Magistrate Court was abuzz Monday, as 32 co-defendants were brought in front of Chief Magistrate Judge George Hutchinson for preliminary hearings.

The defendants -- charged with crimes ranging from conspiracy to drug trafficking -- were all part of a recent drug bust that officials said is one of the largest takedowns of a Mexican drug cartel in Drug Enforcement Administration history.

The hearings began at 8:30 a.m. and continued well into the evening. Numbers were not available at press time, but an assistant district attorney said she believed every case had been bound over to Superior Court and that only a few defendants were granted bond.

Because of the number of defendants, several separate hearings were held. The suspects filed into the courtroom's first two rows wearing headphones that allowed them to hear a translator.

Defense attorneys crowded into the small area in front of Hutchinson's bench.

Investigator Luther Bowen testified at length about hundreds of intercepted phone calls that placed defendants from Gwinnett to Florida to the border of Tijuana, Mexico, all somehow connected to the bust that netted at least 174 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, 17 kilos of cocaine, 13 firearms and more than $50,000 in dirty money.

He told Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Dan Mayfield about serving search warrants and finding crystal meth in plastic containers and pounds of unfinished product, in liquid form, inside Corona bottles.

Socorro Hernandez-Rodriguez, aka Soco, is the alleged Atlanta-based ring leader, as Bowen said authorities believe he "organized and orchestrated pretty much everything."

Jose Pineda was one of Hernandez-Rodriguez's "high-level" traffickers, Bowen said, and "main distributors."

Other defendants, according to investigators, played various roles from driving Hernandez-Rodriguez around to finding potential customers.