ATLANTA � In a city where Coca-Cola, United Parcel Service
and Home Depot are the titans of industry, there are new
powerful forces on the block: Mexican drug cartels.
Their presence and ruthless tactics are
largely unknown to most here. Yet, of the 195 U.S. cities
where Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are operating,
federal law enforcement officials say Atlanta has emerged as
the new gateway to the troubled Southwest border.
Rival drug cartels, the same violent
groups warring in Mexico for control of routes to lucrative
U.S. markets, have established Atlanta as the principal
distribution center for the entire eastern U.S., according to
the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center.
In fiscal year 2008, federal drug
authorities seized more drug-related cash in Atlanta � about
$70 million � than any other region in the country, Drug
Enforcement Administration records show.
This year, more than $30 million has
been intercepted in the Atlanta area � far more than the $19
million in Los Angeles and $18 million in Chicago.
Atlanta has not seen a fraction of the
violence that engulfs much of northern Mexico, but law
enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about the
cartels' expanding operations here.
"The same folks who are rolling heads
in the streets of Ciudad Ju�rez" � El Paso's Mexican neighbor
� "are operating in Atlanta. Here, they are just better
behaved," says Jack Killorin, who heads the Office of National
Drug Control Policy's federal task force in Atlanta.
The same regional features that appeal
to legitimate corporate operations � access to transportation
systems and proximity to major U.S. cities � have lured the
cartels, Atlanta U.S. Attorney David Nahmias says.
Explosive Hispanic growth
An added attraction for the cartels,
say Nahmias and Rodney Benson, the DEA's Atlanta chief, is the
explosive growth of the Hispanic community.
Nahmias calls northeast suburban
Gwinnett County, about 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, the
"epicenter" of the region's drug activity.
Gwinnett's Hispanic population surged
from 8,470 in 1990 to 64,137 in 2000, according to the Pew
Hispanic Center. Now, 17% of the county's 776,000 people are
"You see Mexican drug-trafficking
operations deploying representatives to hide within these
communities in plain sight," Benson says. "They were
attempting to blend into the same communities as those who
were hard-working, law-abiding people."
The cartel representatives here range
from the drivers, packagers and money counters to senior
figures in the drug trade.
"We've got direct linkages between
cartel representatives who take their orders from cartel
leadership in Mexico," Benson says.
From the border, shipments of
marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin are routed over
land to Atlanta for storage in a network of stash houses. They
are then moved to distribution operations in the Carolinas,
Tennessee, the Mid-Atlantic, New York and New England.
Cash is generally moved over the same
routes back to the Atlanta area, where balance sheets are
reconciled. The bundles of money are turned over to
transportation units for bulk shipments back to Mexico, Benson
Concern over violence
Although the level of drug-related
violence in Mexico has not surfaced in the Atlanta area,
recent incidents have raised concerns among law enforcement
Last July, for example, a Rhode Island
man who allegedly owed $300,000 to Atlanta-based traffickers
was found chained to a wall in the basement of a Lilburn, Ga.,
home, located in western Gwinnett County.
Benson says the man had been
blindfolded, gagged and beaten. Federal investigators, who
were alerted to the location, later found the man alive but
severely dehydrated. Three Mexican nationals fled the house
when authorities approached. All three were captured and a
cache of weapons, including an assault rifle, was seized.
"There is no doubt in my mind that � we
certainly saved his life," Benson says.
About the same time last year, another
man was kidnapped in Gwinnett County for non-payment of drug
proceeds. When traffickers went to pick up what they thought
was a $2 million ransom, shots were exchanged between the
traffickers and police who were working with the victim's
family. One of the suspects was killed and the other arrested,
Killorin says much of the violence has
been related to similar incidents of "intra-cartel discipline"
and has not spilled into the streets.
There is no mistaking the groups'
"We know they're here," Gwinnett County
Police Cpl. Illana Spellman says, adding that the area's
access to interstate highways is a major lure.
"Geographically, it's set up perfectly for these kinds of
Johnson reported from Washington,