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The Meth Effect: Retaliation key part of trafficking

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

This is the second in a four-part series chronicling the infiltration of drug cartels in Gwinnett and their impact on the area.

Part Two: "The Cartels"

In July 2009, in a Buford wood line near Interstate 985, a man living in the area made a startling discovery while investigating a foul odor -- a man's torso clad only in plaid, Tommy Hilfiger boxer shorts, size large.

The body -- dismembered at both thighs and shoulders, decapitated -- bore the markings of a classic, professional disposal. Who he was remains a mystery.

A year later, the traumatized bodies of Martin Gomez-Gonzalez, 26, of Buford, and Gerardo Sorio-Amador, 24, of Sugar Hill, turned up in a ditch near Buford. Police said the two were slain at, or near, the Old Suwanee Road ditch.

While the murders remain unsolved, with no suspects specified, Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith recently called the notion that all three were the handiwork of cartel henchmen "reasonable speculation."

It's possible the victims bore the ultimate sanctioning by cartels, providing further evidence that the most extreme violence in metro Atlanta, like in other U.S. distribution areas outside the Southwest, is limited to players in drug or human trafficking trades, rarely spilling into the general populace. That's not to say retaliation hasn't spurred communal alarm.

Consider: A 31-year-old Dominican citizen in July 2008 was lured from Rhode Island to Lilburn to settle a $300,000 debt to the Mexican Gulf Cartel. Authorities found him badly beaten and dehydrated, chained to a basement wall, an incident that brought a wave of law enforcement and shocked neighbors.

That same month, Gwinnett police shot and killed an armed, suspected kidnapper in a Waffle House parking lot as he tried to pick up a reported $2 million owed to cartel bosses.

Seizures in Gwinnett have intercepted millions in dirty cash and tens of millions worth of product, most of it bound for somewhere else. In fiscal year 2008, DEA records show that federal authorities in metro Atlanta seized about $70 million in drug money, more than any other U.S. region. Operatives whose money is stolen in robberies, or who are busted by law enforcement, suffer, in the eyes of cartel bosses, from what one DEA official terms "performance issues." Discipline can be ugly.

As Atlanta earned the dubious reputation as the main distribution city to East Coast markets, authorities chalked up high-profile busts born of complex, sometimes years-long investigations. In recent years, those have included Project Reckoning, which targeted the Gulf Cartel, and Operation Xcellerator, which hit the Sinaloa cartel. Subsequent press conferences sent a mixed message: That progress is real, but the worse could be yet to come.

Several years hence, federal officials know that while cocaine and marijuana distribution was being pinched in metro Atlanta, cartel kingpins were altering business models.

Following busts in May 2009 at two Duluth homes stashing more than 350 pounds of meth -- the largest confiscation, at the time, on record in the Eastern United States -- Jack Killorin, Atlanta's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area director, tempered law enforcement's enthusiasm by calling the seizure, somewhat ominously, "the tip of the iceberg."

Though Killorin characterized metro Atlanta as "the new Miami" in terms of drug distribution routes, he drew a clear distinction between the jewelry-heavy, often flamboyant Colombian traffickers of south Florida in the 1980s. This new breed, he warned, preferred a lower profile, to keep hidden in the placidity of Atlanta's burgeoning suburbs, using the same distribution interstates that carry legitimate cargo to push drug shipments.

In 2011, authorities point to one cartel as the dominator of Gwinnett's meth pipeline: La Familia.

Authorities said La Familia was behind the 2009 Duluth busts and controls much of the metro Atlanta meth trade today. "Probably one of the more vicious, ruthless, cult-like (organizations)," said Rodney Benson, DEA special agent in charge of Atlanta. "In Mexico, there's been many acts of extreme violence linked to (La Familia), not just directed toward rivals, but also toward military and federal police officials."

Dan Mayfield, Gwinnett's deputy chief assistant district attorney, estimates 80 percent of his professional time is spent prosecuting cartel cases, including a La Familia case charging 87 defendants in 14 indictments. More than half those defendants have been convicted or entered a guilty plea, but the process strains a District Attorney's Office that's grappled with funding issues.

Mayfield supervises a team of three assistant district attorneys and two investigators devoted -- exclusively -- to finding and prosecuting cartel members. It's a measure that Mayfield said is necessary.

"The cartels are at war," he said. "There have been 35,000 drug-related murders in Mexico in the last five years. These are the same people that have set up shop in Gwinnett County. Some of the Mexico violence is spilling over into the U.S. and Gwinnett."

The viciousness of cartel bosses, especially in La Familia, can complicate prosecution efforts.

"(Suspects) fear retaliation from the cartels far more than they fear a long prison sentence," Mayfield said. "I've been involved in major drug investigations for 15 years, and I've never seen arrestees so afraid to cooperate with law enforcement."

Cartel meth: origins

In a nearly 1,000-pound meth find in Norcross, and again with a triple-fatal lab explosion in Lilburn, authorities said the homes were rife with trays, tubs, barrels and buckets of liquid meth, or "meth oil," not yet suited for ingestion as a crystallized substance. In its truest form, liquid methamphetamine is brown. "Users on the street believe the clear form is more pure, which isn't true," an undercover Gwinnett police detective recently said.

Tracing the origins of the toxic liquid leads one to laboratories throughout Mexico.

Traffickers smuggle restricted substances like ephedrine and pseudoephedrine from source countries such as China and India to blend the meth oil in laboratories. Mexico restricted the importation of ephedrine in 2008, according to an Addiction Journal report. (Many U.S. states have passed legislation restricting the sale of the key meth components, including Georgia with House Bill 216 in 2005, which required products with pseudoephedrine as the sole active ingredient to be sold behind the counters of retail stores and pharmacies. Congress passed an act restricting pseudoephedrine sales in 2006.)

In liquid form, meth can have certain benefits for drug traffickers who rely on craftiness to disguise it. They've been known to use Corona beer bottles and other measures Benson wouldn't specify.

"I would just say you could leave it up to the imagination when we're talking about (smuggling) a liquid form," he said.

Smugglers often rely on a transportation coordinator, or "gatekeeper," who works on a contract basis to bring the contraband onto U.S. soil, via tanker trucks, backpackers and other methods. Experts agree that a majority of product bound for the Eastern seaboard is driven 1,000-plus miles to metro Atlanta, where traffickers tend to melt into communities with high immigrant populations.

'Warehousemen, managers, mules'

In law enforcement lingo, a "mule" is responsible for the dangerous task of transporting drugs. In Gwinnett, that usually involves interstates -- and subterfuge.

"Most often, we're seeing tractor-trailers coming in with a cover load of innocent appearing merchandise with the drugs hidden inside," Mayfield said.

Operatives who Mayfield coins "warehousemen" are responsible for working in, maintaining and protecting stash houses, which come in two varieties: Those for drugs and those for money. By nature, warehousemen are the most common victims of rival home invasions and armed robberies.

"As a general rule, there's one branch of the organization bringing drugs up from Mexico and another responsible for sending the money south," Mayfield said. "But sometimes the cartels make a mistake and we get both cash and drugs in one location."

Another Mayfield term -- "managers" -- refers to the hands-off operatives rarely found in possession of drugs. Their function is to set up sales, stash houses and transportation of drugs and money, he said.

Inside the homes -- often sparsely decorated meth factories containing little more than a bed -- the air can fill with a volatile, chemical potpourri. Converting the oil to "ice" takes between one and two days and is exacerbated by acetone, which washes out impurities in the oil and crystallizes it. The finished product -- a powder like crushed diamonds, in high purity form -- can be snorted, smoked or used intravenously.

Interestingly, Benson said cartels punish their operatives for even sampling the meth supply.

"Their attitude would be, 'That poison goes up to the Americans,'" Benson said. "You'd be severely sanctioned for that."