Mexican drug cartels spread roots into Atlanta


By Dahleen Glanton
Orlando Sentinel

ATLANTA — On the outside, the modest three-bedroom brick-sided home on Village Green Court in Lilburn looked no different than many other houses in the middle-class suburban neighborhood.

But when police were called to the rented house in one of Gwinnett County's oldest communities last month, they found a scene that has become familiar in the Atlanta area since Mexican drug cartels began setting up shop in well-established communities, in the midst of unsuspecting neighbors.

"We found a dead body in the living room and a dead body in the den. The floor was covered with kilo wrappers [for drugs] and there was a money-counting machine set to count hundred-dollar bills," said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter.

The Obama administration announced plans last week to shore up efforts along the Southwest U.S. border and send agents to Mexico to try to dismantle drug cartels responsible for thousands of murders, beheadings and kidnappings there. Meanwhile, law-enforcement officials in the U.S. are waging their own battles to crack down on drug-related crimes that have spread to cities and small towns across America.

The Mexican drug cartels have set up networks in at least 230 cities, according to the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center.

Atlanta, with its prime location for distribution, has become a major hub for drug trafficking by the cartels and a principal distribution center for wholesale-level cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana to the eastern United States, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials said. In 2008, Atlanta led the nation with $70 million in confiscated cash, according to the DEA.

"Atlanta is like 'Miami Vice' in the 1980s," said Patrick Crosby, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Georgia. "We ship more cocaine to Florida than we get from Florida."

Mexican cartels have replaced Colombian ones as the primary distributors of cocaine, transporting drugs into the Atlanta region from California, Texas and Mexico, the DEA said.

Unlike the Colombian drug dealers, known for their flashy cars and Miami Beach mansions, the Mexican traffickers prefer to conduct business quietly--until violence erupts. Local officials said they want to make sure that the vicious crimes occurring in Mexico do not make their way to their towns.

Last week, three men pleaded guilty to holding drug dealer Oscar Reynoso hostage in the basement of a house in the suburb of Lilburn. Reynoso, 31, had been lured to Atlanta from Rhode Island, chained to a wall and tortured because he owed the cartel $300,000, the DEA said. Reynoso also has pleaded guilty to drug charges.

"What we always hear from neighbors is, 'We never saw them or talked to them,' " Porter said. "They maintain the yard and keep to themselves."

Copyright 2009 Orlando Sentinel

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