LAWRENCEVILLE - From the exterior, the Lawrenceville bodega in a tiny shopping center on East Crogan Street clearly offered a butchery, selections of fruit and roasted chicken.
But at its core, officials say the now-shuttered Carniceria Y Fruteria operated as a distribution cell for marijuana and highly destructive narcotics.
The Mexican grocery store - along with homes in Lawrenceville and Dacula - was the focal point of an investigation by Gwinnett police and prosecutors launched last spring. The probe culminated last week in eight arrests and the seizure of more than $1 million in dirty money and drugs - all of which was bound for Gwinnett streets, officials said.
The busts came on the heels of a nationwide takedown of Mexican cartel associates last week. That operation turned up one of the largest and most complex meth labs in Drug Enforcement Administration history, built within an unassuming home in northeast Lawrenceville.
"Last week was wholesale - today is retail," said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter at a morning press conference. "These were the folks actually putting the drugs out on the streets."
Police served simultaneous warrants at three locations - the store at 199 E. Crogan St., homes on Stanley Road in Dacula and another on Brandy Court in Lawrenceville - to conclude the investigation Friday. The store sits alongside Latino eateries and salons near Paper Mill Road, a stone's throw from Rhodes Jordan Park.
The store acted as a collection point, Porter said, where drugs were broken down to smaller quantities and pushed into local communities. It's legitimate business as a grocer was minimal, he said.
"I don't think people who drive by those stores - or even some of the customers - realize what's going on," Porter said. "It's another example of how well concealed this is."
There's no evidence that the two busts were related, or that the pushers arrested during the local initiative were connected to cartels, said Gwinnett police Chief Charles Walters. The immigration status of the suspects is unknown, he said.
"Just like any other business, their product has to be brought into the United States, but that's the extent of it," Walters said.
One suspect remains at large. The business had been operating as a drug hub for a year to 18 months, investigators believe.
Specifically, police found seven pounds of cocaine, three pounds of meth and more than two pounds of marijuana over the course of the operation. Authorities also seized six weapons, including a 5.7 mm handgun with bullets capable of piercing police armor, Porter said.
By contrast, last week's meth lab bust yielded 174 pounds of the toxic substance. A 350-pound meth find at two Duluth homes in May was the largest ever recorded in the eastern United States, an event that fueled metro Atlanta's reputation as a drug pipeline.
Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli said authorities have closed the store following the arrests.
The business isn't the first in the area exposed as a front for drug distribution.
Last November, federal authorities busted a gang-run cocaine hub disguised as a car audio business about a mile from the grocery store. Running "Monster Car Audio" were local members of a California-based street gang known as "South Side Myfas," a subset of the notoriously violent Surenos empire, officials said.
Walters couldn't say on Monday whom exactly was the intended buyer of the drugs. He urged residents to report any business or situation that "doesn't feel right."
"I think it's safe to say it effects every part of the community - every economic strata, everything," he said.
Given its scope, Porter said Gwinnettians should realize the magnitude of the local drug problem by now.
"If they (aren't aware), they have their heads in the sand," Porter said. "We've been in this fight a long time ... It's a fight we have to bring to the dealers."
Once the suspects are prosecuted, Schiralli said the guns and drugs will be destroyed. The seized money will be channeled to a fund used strictly by the narcotics division, supplying training, equipment and "buy money" for undercover deals, he said.
SideBar: At a glance
In a recent joint drug investigation, the following suspects face a variety of weapons and drug trafficking charges:
· Elizar Escobedo, 24, Lawrenceville
· Oliver Isaola, 29, Dalton
· Enrique Jaime-Jaime, 37, Dacula
· Dustin Lancaster, 29, Atlanta
· Miguel Lopez, 24, Dacula
· Maria Martinez, 48, Dacula
· Raymond Murray, 33, Augusta
· Pedro Pineda, 29, Lawrenceville