This is the first in a four-part series chronicling the infiltration of drug cartels in Gwinnett and their impact on the area.
Part One: "The Powder Keg"
LILBURN — Shyama Sariany stepped onto her expansive front porch, beneath its decorative flourishes, and realized the early March morning was chillier than expected. The chatty mother of two teenagers pulled her head scarf around her chin, and sighed like peeved mothers do, eyes squinted.
Federal cleanup funds for meth labs run out
Directly across Spring Mill Drive it was still there, in that condition, the imposing and unsettling reminder, the reported methamphetamine laboratory that had exploded with black smoke, a nice house choking with chaos, rupturing Sariany’s idyllic, two-car-garage sense of normalcy.
The neighborhood off Five Forks Trickum Road, solidly middle-class with a bevy of original owners from the 1980s, with its colonial-style houses and Parkview pride, was jolted Feb. 17 when three children — ages 18 months to 4 — died from injuries suffered in the fire.
Sariany said she saw everything, attracted to her window around 4 p.m. by an ear-splitting boom. Two weeks after the chemical fire blamed in the deaths, the powder-blue two-story across the street from her still spat plastic blinds and bug screens, still bore three red stickers warning of interior hazards, its window frames rimmed in black soot, its garage windows masked with paper, like neighbors said they had always been.
The children’s 22-year-old mother, Neibi Brito, is jailed without bond, along with an alleged accomplice; the lone suspect charged with murder, Ivan Gonzalez, remains on the lam, most likely Mexico-bound, police said. Authorities pulled 10 pounds of meth from the “super lab” and nearly $200,000 from its walls.
“The house is so ugly,” Sariany said, having inched to her front yard for a better view. She pointed out the garden hose, still snaking the front walkway, used in a futile attempt to help the trapped kids. “I was so devastated.”
Seventy-eight days prior, in a press conference at Gwinnett police headquarters, authorities said this could happen.
On the heels of a gargantuan meth lab bust in another nondescript Gwinnett neighborhood, a high-ranking Drug Enforcement Agency official with decades of experience studying and hunting top-tier smugglers, stood before a teeming crescent of reporters and warned of the “powder keg” scenario. That is, how the air in big labs can be so thick with volatile fumes, the slightest spark — a match strike, a pilot light — can literally blow the structure to pieces.
Three dead children added a real, local dimension to such threats.
Officials agree the fatalities were as atypical as they were tragic, not mutilated bodies in a roadside ditch, not a headless torso in the woods — but kids dying, in the heart of Gwinnett, in the name of illegitimate profit.
Obscure trade, real fallout
The local presence of meth labs bankrolled by organized cartels like La Familia isn’t entirely new — Gwinnett adopted Atlanta’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area designation in 2006 — but the idea could be less abstract than in years past. The incredible scale of the labs, and the bulk they are capable of producing, is the new variable, and one that’s surprisingly easy to camouflage.
Whereas the smaller, clandestine labs usually associated with rural or lower income areas can produce roughly two ounces of meth per cook, seizures over the last two years in Gwinnett have yielded hundreds of pounds — or as much as 1,000 pounds at the Norcross “powder keg,” which authorities proclaimed the largest takedown in United States history.
“The big difference ... is the cases have gotten much bigger, in terms of size of the product,” Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said recently.
Data from federal and local sources bear proof that drug-trafficking — and especially a pipeline of meth, in the wake of clampdowns on cocaine and marijuana — is rampant.
The 1,532 drug cases indicted in Gwinnett last year more than doubled those logged a decade prior. Cases had gradually increased until a sharp spike (1,608 cases) in 2005, the zenith thus far. The DA’s Office doesn’t specifically track how many of those have cartel ties, and deciphering how many are rooted in meth isn’t possible because most defendants were caught possessing, distributing or ingesting a grab-bag of illegal substances.
But year-over-year meth confiscations by Gwinnett police, the county’s largest police force, showed a dramatic, 5,600 percent increase in grams seized in 2010, though much of that is attributed to the record Norcross bust.
In the same time span, however, meth-related arrests more than doubled to 115, while only one suspect, a Texan named Jose Galvez-Vela, was bagged in the Norcross lab confiscation, police said.
While even large-scale busts are trumpeted as victories in the overall war, authorities say estimating the prevalence of meth and other drugs on highways and in stash houses is impossible.
Authorities maintain that most major methamphetamine shipments in Gwinnett are bound for other markets, often on the Eastern seaboard, and that only a fraction trickles into communities.
Violence associated with cartels isn’t new, either.
Police believe recent homicides and kidnappings could be linked to large-scale trafficking. But for Spring Mill residents, and for law enforcement at large, the Feb. 17 explosion and fire represented the nightmare scenario — children whose demise pointed to a lack of responsibility one official called “disturbing.” Porter said evidence shows drug proceeds from the Lilburn home were being pipelined to Mexico.
In the wake of the fire, as Brito was under suicide watch in jail, a mound of stuffed animals and flowers swelled as a front-yard tribute to her kids — Stacy Brito, 1, Ivan Guevara, 3, and Isaac Guevara, 4. The tokens have since been channeled to a cooperative ministry, at the request of grandparents.
Neighbors had tried in vain to introduce themselves. The kids, like most visitors to the home, were sequestered. Still, the nature of their deaths — trapped, authorities said, on the second floor, suffering from burns and smoke inhalation — struck a chord.
“For days, people would just stop, put something down and walk off,” said Susan Shenefield, a de facto Spring Hill leader who has spearheaded post-fire cleanup efforts. “A lot of neighbors were curious about what happened to the children. People cared.”
This is where the children went:
Their burial, held in a vast, scenic bowl of a cemetery in Dalton, was a somber gathering of salt-of-the-earth Hispanic immigrants attracted to labor jobs, and a younger, more Americanized crowd. Beige earth was shoveled atop tiny, white caskets. The two brothers lay stacked atop each other, their sister beside them, their plots beside a busy road. Beyond it, an apartment complex teamed with other kids.
At the funeral, a simple, guttural question prevailed ... Why?
Some defended Brito as a genuinely decent person who’d ensconced herself with the wrong crowd, having moved from the foothills of Calhoun to Lilburn only three months before the fire. Others spoke of how the eldest boy had developed an affinity for his brother, how he’d share every piece of candy and toy with him.
The emotional shrapnel wasn’t relegated to family.
Sariany, the Lilburn neighbor, said she’s trying to keep depression at bay. Brito, she said, ran to her door and wailed for help, for someone to call 911 and get the kids out alive.
“I saw those three children, and they put them in the ambulance, and they were all burned,” Sariany recalled. “I was crying with the mother, too. She was curing herself by crying and screaming. She couldn’t save them. She knows she was doing something bad, and it was wrong. How can parents put their children in jeopardy like that? The screaming, the chaos, it was indescribable.”
The threat of another ear-splitting boom, with similar consequences, is real.
Dan Mayfield, deputy assistant district attorney and a top authority on Gwinnett drug traffickers, said the Spring Mill Drive living situation was hardly isolated.
“Unfortunately, I can’t say a red flag is the absence of children in a home,” Mayfield said. “We routinely find children living in houses where methamphetamine is being processed.”