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.
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 Hispanic.
“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.