Staff Photo: Josh Green
DEA Atlanta Special Agent in Charge Harry S. Sommers speaks with media Thursday after announcing the seizure of 86 pounds of heroin and nearly $2 million in a Duluth home, a bust he called "unprecedented."
ATLANTA — Authorities confiscated 86 pounds of heroin in a Duluth home Wednesday as part of a bust that was remarkable in scope and indicative of a change in tactics by Mexican drug cartels that use metro Atlanta as a distribution hub, officials said.
Harry A. Sommers, DEA Special Agent in charge of the Atlanta Field Division, called the find “unprecedented” in relation to other heroin busts in metro Atlanta. The drug’s street value was estimated at $5 million.
Agents made three arrests at the 4041 Megan Road home, tucked in a neighborhood off Old Norcross Road, and also found $2 million in cash, more than four pounds of methamphetamine and two guns, including an AR-15 assault rifle, Sommers said. The packaged drugs were found stashed in the walls and above a refrigerator.
DEA Atlanta had been investigating the alleged drug cartel operatives — who Sommers said are tied to the infamous Gulf Cartel in Mexico — for more than a year. The organization was based in Fulton County but used the Duluth home as a stash house, officials said.
The Duluth seizure is linked to another huge haul: 77 pounds of heroin and $4 million uncovered last August in Cobb County. Sommers said a portion of the drugs were bound for other markets, while some would have been distributed locally.
“These drugs obviously would have gone into the hands of young people and families,” said Fulton County Chief Senior District Attorney Lance Cross, flanked by a piles of drugs and cash at an Atlanta press conference.
In heroin, Sommers said international drug traffickers see a fresh opportunity and ready-made clientele — prescription medication abusers. Stash houses in Gwinnett and other suburban counties have been the favored turf of traffickers for years, but for other uses such as storing cocaine, growing marijuana or cooking methamphetamine.
“Heroin sales in the U.S. for many years were flat in most cities,” Sommers said. “There was certainly a concerted effort to say, ‘How can we make more money off of this?’”
Sommers said heroin seizures have quadrupled in metro Atlanta since 2008, while cocaine busts have slipped. The growth can be attributed to several factors: The rise in abuse of prescription pills such as Oxycontin, which produces much the same effect as heroin but is three times as expensive on the street. Also, the purity of heroin has generally increased from 10 percent to about 50 percent — potent enough that users can smoke or snort the drug, as opposed to injecting it intravenously.
The absence of the heroin needle has made the drug more palatable for young users, Sommers said.
“It’s taken away some of the stigma,” he said. “In their minds, it becomes a recreational drug.”
The three suspects arrested in Duluth — Bardomiano Renteria-Salazar, 35, Carlos Soto-Pineda, 32, and Raphael Lee-Ochoa, 20 — are being held at the Gwinnett County Jail, pending prosecution in Fulton County. Sommers said only one of them is a U.S. citizen. All three held leadership positions in the cartel operation, he said.
At the street-level in Gwinnett, heroin finds are still relatively rare, said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith.
“We see marijuana, meth and cocaine much more frequently,” he said.
Anecdotally, arrests in recent years indicate the drug is reaching the general populace.
A woman was arrested one night in February after authorities said she was caught shooting heroin in her car — in the Gwinnett County Jail parking lot.
Last summer, Gwinnett police pulled over a DUI suspect and found him in possession of 9.5 grams of heroin, enough to charge the 24-year-old Lawrenceville resident with trafficking.