Pauline Arrillaga, AP, April 19, 2009
Five men dead in an apartment.
In a county that might see five homicides in an entire year, the call over the sheriff’s radio revealed little about what awaited law enforcement at a sprawling apartment complex.
A type of crime, and criminal, once foreign to this landscape of blooming dogwoods had arrived in Shelby County. Sheriff Chris Curry felt it even before he laid eyes on the grisly scene. He called the state. The FBI. The DEA. Anyone he could think of.
“I don’t know what I’ve got,” he warned them. “But I’m gonna need help.”
The five dead men lay scattered about the living room of one apartment in a complex of hundreds.
Some of the men showed signs of torture: Burns seared into their earlobes revealed where modified jumper cables had been clamped as an improvised electrocution device. Adhesive from duct tape used to bind the victims still clung to wrists and faces, from mouths to noses.
As a final touch, throats were slashed open, post-mortem.
It didn’t take long for Curry and federal agents to piece together clues: A murder scene, clean save for the crimson-turned-brown stains now spotting the carpet. Just a couple of mattresses tossed on the floor. It was a typical stash house.
But the cut throats? Some sort of ghastly warning.
Curry would soon find this was a retaliation hit over drug money with ties to Mexico’s notorious Gulf Cartel.
Curry also found out firsthand what federal drug enforcement agents have long understood. The drug war, with the savagery it brings, knows no bounds. It had landed in his back yard, in the foothills of the Appalachians, in Alabama’s wealthiest county, around the corner from The Home Depot.
One thousand, twenty-four miles from the Mexico border.
Some 10,560 people have been killed since 2006, the year Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office and launched his campaign against the organized crime gangs that move cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin to a vast U.S. market. Consider that fewer than 4,300 American service members have died in the six-year war in Iraq.
The cartels are fighting each other for power, and the Calderon administration for their very survival. Never before has a Mexican president gone after these narco-networks with such force.
And now the cartels have brought the fight to us: In 230 U.S. cities, the Mexican organizations maintain distribution hubs or supply drugs to local distributors, according to the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center.
Places like Miami and other longtime transportation points along the California, Arizona and Texas borders. But also Twin Falls, Idaho. Billings, Mont. Wichita, Kan. Phoenix. St. Louis. Milwaukee.
Even Shelby County.
One reason for that shift is the ability these days to “blend in in plain sight,” as the Atlanta DEA chief puts it. The flood of Hispanic immigrants into American communities to work construction and plant jobs helped provide cover for traffickers looking to expand into new markets or build hubs in quiet suburbs with fewer law officers than the big cities.
Shelby has long been Alabama’s fastest-growing county, with its proximity to Birmingham, good schools and a growing corporate corridor along Highway 280. The number of Hispanics grew 126 percent from 2000 to 2007. It was once rare to see a Latino face at the local Wal-Mart or gas station. Now, dozens upon dozens of Hispanic day laborers line Lorna Road in the northern part of the county.
As Bowden says, “You don’t stand out.”
With some 4.9 million trucks crossing into the United States from Mexico every year, tractor-trailers have become a transportation mode of choice among traffickers. Drugs head north, but weapons and cash also head back south–like the $400,000 Border Patrol agents found on April 2 near Las Cruces, N.M., stashed in the refrigeration unit of a semi.
Shelby County is a trucking mecca, with highways 65, 20, 59 and 459 running east to Atlanta, north to Nashville, south to New Orleans, west to Dallas. Once reluctant to haul drug shipments too far beyond a border state, drivers are willing to take more chances now, because there are so many trucks on the road, Bowden says.