Drug Central: Northeast Georgia now a hub for trafficking

The Times

The numbers quoted during hearings held Friday in Gainesville's federal courthouse were staggering. One hundred kilograms of cocaine. Three hundred forty-one pounds of methamphetamine. All of it was bound for Hall County. All of it came from Mexico.

And as the flow of Mexican immigrants to the poultry capital of the world continues, a handful are making Hall County a distribution hub for an entirely different commodity.

"We used to worry about multicounty drug cases," Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic said. "Now it's international."

Over the past several years, local and federal officials have made felony-grade drug seizures of 10 pounds or more in Hall County with alarming regularity. The ultimate destination for the drugs isn't Gainesville; it's the entire east coast.

Federal officials say over the past 10 years, the distribution center for all cocaine supplied to the eastern United States shifted from south Florida to Atlanta, largely due to the city's confluence of major interstates. Now the so-called "staging areas" for major drug shipments have moved to the outer ring of the metro area, including Hall, Gwinnett and Forsyth counties. All have major concentrations of Hispanics, and the reason the drugs are coming there is clear, officials say.

"If you're going to set up a criminal enterprise, you're not going to go where you will be conspicuous," Cronic said. "You're going to go where you can blend in."

Said Ruth Porter-Whipple, a spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, "Drug traffickers are in a business, and they are going to work where they can conduct that business the most successfully. They're going to go somewhere where they can assimilate."

And Mexicans, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, control the illegal drug trade in America.

While Colombia still produces 90 percent of the cocaine in the world, the Mexican syndicates have largely taken over the distribution role, according to the March 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Roughly 80 percent of the methamphetamine consumed in the United States is made in "superlabs" in Mexico, according to the report.

Law enforcement officials express frustration that after a largely successful effort to stamp out domestic meth labs by outlawing certain ingredients, a porous border with Mexico has helped fill the void for drug users.

"Our hope is the federal government will do something to secure our borders," Cronic said. "That would be the biggest help of all."

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and an outspoken advocate for Hispanic immigrants, cautions against "painting the entire immigrant community with too broad a brush."

"Just like any population, immigrants have an element of criminality," he said.

The National Drug Intelligence Center issues a stark analysis in a June 2007 report: "Law enforcement reporting reveals that as the Mexican immigrant community has grown in the Atlanta area, so too has the presence of Mexican drug traffickers."

Dangerous business

Mexican immigrants like 24-year-old Alejandro Martinez-Menera, who lived in a modest, single-story, wood-frame house off Athens Highway and worked in construction, are hardly drug lords. Yet authorities found $50 million worth of meth in his home and backyard while conducting a search for marijuana plants.

Martinez was one of the lower-rung players in the conspiracy, authorities say. His house was one of five or six weigh stations in the U.S. used by an unnamed Mexican cartel to spread meth across the country.

"They deliver it there, they can hide it, they can break it down and dealers come pick it up or have it delivered," Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Moye said.

Officials believe Martinez-Menera, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges Friday in U.S. District Court, will be far safer behind bars than out on the street, after committing a costly blunder by attracting attention to himself with his marijuana-growing side job. His two brothers, under indictment for the same charges but never caught, may be marked men.

"This is a very dangerous business," said Porter-Whipple of the DEA. "If you lose a load of dope, you're going to pay, one way or the other. It's not healthy for you or your family."

A Mexican drug trafficking organization operates in such a manner that many of the players don't know each other, she said.

"Frequently they are compartmentalized," Porter-Whipple said. "The money is separated from the dope. If I'm a large trafficker sitting in Mexico, I may have several smugglers who don't necessarily know each other. Every organization is different. They're very adaptable, very fluid and very innovative."

Making the bust

Officials say large-scale drug seizures can result partly from intelligence, partly from luck. A 100-kilo shipment of cocaine concealed in a tractor-trailer and bound for Gainesville was discovered during a traffic stop last year by a Texas Department of Public Safety officer trained to spot the indicators of drug trafficking.

In April, Forsyth County officials found 130 pounds of cocaine in the cab of a pickup truck during a traffic stop on Ga. 20.

A month later, authorities seized 400 pounds of cocaine and $3 million at a Cumming fencing company acting on information developed through an investigation.

"That had been going on for some time," Forsyth County Sheriff's Lt. Col. Gene Moss said of the fencing company front. "(Traffickers) feel like they can blend in, and feel more secluded and safer making their transfers away from Atlanta."

The sheer size of the cases demands the involvement of federal officials, who can ensure longer prison sentences without the option of parole. The DEA and ATF routinely work with local sheriff's and police agencies, and claim there are no turf problems.

"The task force concept is nothing new," said Marc Jackson, a spokesman for the Atlanta division office of the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "It's almost standard operating procedure for law enforcement these days to acknowledge the different levels. Certain law enforcement agencies have different resources and levels of expertise, so by working together they can accomplish the goal more effectively.

In the case of the ATF, which is primarily focused on weapons violations, a gun charge against a trafficker can tack on a few extra years in federal prison, Jackson said.

"Our bread and butter is the mandatory minimum sentence," Jackson said.

More to come

Everyone in local law enforcement is just waiting for the next big bust in Hall County.

Said Gainesville police chief Frank Hooper: "I think, unfortunately, we'll see it happen again. But the message we're trying to send is, 'You need to find somewhere else to do this.'"

Said Cronic, "We'll continue to elevate law enforcement efforts in response to what we're seeing."

But even with hundreds of pounds of cocaine and meth being taken off the streets, law enforcement officials know that in many cases, they are just making a dent. For the Mexican cartels, the occasional big drug bust is just the cost of doing business.

"It is," Porter-Whipple said. "But certainly someone's going to have to answer to it. The bigger the numbers, the more serious the retribution."

Authorities have no magic solution for large-scale drug trafficking, other than a hope that the border with Mexico can be better secured. For now, it's a matter of plugging a hole in a dike.

Said Moss, "They're just pushing so much across the border, it's like the pony express. You shoot one off, another gets back on the horse and keeps going. We just have to fight it. That's the bottom line: We just have to keep after it."

Contact: sgurr@gainesvilletimes.com, (770) 718-3428

Originally published Sunday, August 5, 2007

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