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Police make historic drug bust

Gwinnett County police chief Charles Walters speaks during a press conference on Thursday at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville. The actions of hundreds of law enforcement officers led to the arrests of 38 individuals and the seizure of 17 kilograms of cocaine, 188 pounds of methamphetamine, 13 weapons and $50,000 in U.S. currency. Of the 188 pounds of meth seized, 174 pounds were located in a fully operational lab in Lawrenceville.

Gwinnett County police chief Charles Walters speaks during a press conference on Thursday at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville. The actions of hundreds of law enforcement officers led to the arrests of 38 individuals and the seizure of 17 kilograms of cocaine, 188 pounds of methamphetamine, 13 weapons and $50,000 in U.S. currency. Of the 188 pounds of meth seized, 174 pounds were located in a fully operational lab in Lawrenceville.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Elena Rostas paid little attention to the white, two-story house a few doors down on Lawrenceville's La Maison Drive.

Some nights she caught a "weird" smell wafting from the home's direction, something pungent like gasoline. And it seemed odd that a red semitrailer was parked outside the home for several days recently, she said.

Other than that, nothing fishy, she said.

Situated around a bend in the Royal Terrace subdivision, the unassuming abode housed one of the largest, most complex methamphetamine conversion laboratories federal authorizes have uncovered in the United States, officials said Thursday.

The only thing missing from the docile front, said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, "was a white picket fence."

Gwinnett became ground zero this week in the largest takedown operation targeting a Mexican drug cartel in the history of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Lawrenceville home -- where a reported 174 pounds of meth were found Wednesday -- was the national epicenter, providing links to operations in cities as far as Los Angeles.

Rostas, a mother of 12, found news of the raid disconcerting.

"To me, it's pretty scary," she said, a fussy child at her side. "It's a quiet neighborhood. Maybe that's why they chose it."

Bingo, authorities said at a press conference.

The bust and others like it nationwide were the result of an initiative called Project Coronado, leading to 31 arrests of suspect traffickers in Gwinnett alone Wednesday. Along with the meth haul, hundreds of local police pulled 17 kilos of cocaine, 13 firearms and $54,000 in dirty money off Gwinnett streets, officials said.

Officials made 303 arrests nationwide.

The takedown is a crippling blow to "La Familia Michoacana," a ruthless drug organization based in southwestern Mexico, said Rodney Benson, a special agent with the DEA in Atlanta.

La Familia, for short, operates nationwide but has strongholds in metro Atlanta, Dallas and greater Los Angeles. A La Familia leader is believed to be responsible for the murder of 12 federal agents in Mexico in July, Benson said.

Locally, authorities rescued a Dominican man from New York who'd been kidnapped and slated for execution, Benson said.

Benson warned that the organization may try to regroup and re-establish their financiers.

"Frankly, we have to keep the pressure on," he said, "and that's what we're going to do."

Gwinnett police Chief Charles Walters called the case indicative of the large-scale drug operations his officers must routinely fight.

"Complexity is the norm now -- it's not a simple mom-and-pop drug organization," Walters said. "We have taken a lot of dangerous people out of this community."

La Familia operatives were attracted to Gwinnett -- as are many traffickers to metro Atlanta -- by the area's booming Hispanic population and plentiful homes for rent on quiet streets. Both are a means to camouflage themselves, Porter said.

Porter said authorities were led to the meth lab through tipsters in the community.

"People need to report suspicious smells and suspicious comings-and-goings," he said.