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Feds: Cartel takedown had key Gwinnett ties

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

ATLANTA -- Roadside drug busts in Gwinnett proved key in building a case against a Mexican cartel acting as a cocaine and marijuana pipeline, federal officials said Wednesday.

A three-year investigation coined "Operation G-60" culminated with the arrests of 16 alleged drug traffickers and money launderers from inner city Atlanta to far-flung suburbs Wednesday.

Authorities called the round-up a notch in their cap in the ongoing pushback against Mexican drug cartels attracted to metro Atlanta's burgeoning immigrant population, major highways and plentiful, affordable housing.

Seizures in the investigation gathered 312 kilograms of cocaine -- with an estimated street value of $7 million -- more than 3,000 pounds of marijuana and $1.5 million in drug proceeds, said U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates.

Five of the more than 30 suspects were listed by federal authorities as Gwinnett residents.

The operation "has dealt a severe blow to the Mexican drug cartels operating in the metro Atlanta area," Yates said.

The cartel, characterized as a "large Mexican drug trafficking organization," is not identified in public documents with a specific name, a U.S. Department of Justice spokesman said.

The organization was built of several drug trafficking "cells" in the Atlanta area, headed by men and women from College Park to Smyrna and beyond who employed minions to run "stash houses" across the metro area. Multi-kilogram shipments of cocaine and marijuana came on a regular basis from Mexico, officials said.

After distributing drugs locally, operatives allegedly sent proceeds back to Mexico via wire remitting companies, such as the defunct "Latino Mix" run by an Atlanta woman.

Notable, alleged seizures by federal agents have included:

* 1,200 pounds of marijuana in a van after a February traffic stop near Interstate 85 and Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

* 15 kilograms of cocaine from a storage facility in Buford in October.

* Another two traffic stops in Gwinnett in September that netted a combined 69 kilograms of cocaine.

* $110,000 and 188 kilograms of cocaine pulled from a Suwanee home on Nov. 7, 2009.

* Cocaine bust during a Sept. 22, 2009, traffic stop that netted 40 kilograms.

In a federal indictment handed down May 11, cartel participants are charged with crimes that include conspiring and possessing with intent to distribute at least five kilograms of cocaine and at least 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, and related money laundering charges, Yates said.

Among the 16 suspects arrested to date are Gwinnett residents Marvin Edleman Rodas-Perez, 39, of Norcross, Fatima Vasquez, 24, of Lawrenceville, and Carmen Barbosa Mendoza, 33.

Seventeen more defendants -- including Gwinnett residents Javier Colon-Henandez, 28, and Felix Jose Vargas, 38, of Duluth -- have been linked to the case and are considered fugitives.

Yates said charges in the case carry a maximum sentence of life in prison and up to $4 million in fines. Federal authorities are seeking to retain all drug proceeds.