Mexican drug cartels have penetrated so deeply into the American heartland that Atlanta is now reeling under increasing violence as a host of gangs turn the city into a major U.S. drug hub.
Their growing visibility and brazen tactics has converted a city known for southern charm and Coca-Cola into a direct gateway to the border wars, according to a report in USA Today.
The same drug cartels now fighting each other and Mexico’s army in a brutal war are so entrenched that Atlanta is the principal distribution center for New York City, Baltimore, Washington and the rest of the East Coast, federal authorities told the paper. In all, Mexican cartels are now operating in 195 U.S. cities, according to the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center.
The brutality of the Atlanta drug trade has raised concerns that it is at the first step in a violent evolution that has already turned Phoenix into a major kidnapping capital. In that city, drug gangs are so well armed and trained in military tactics that witnesses have mistaken their attacks for police SWAT raids.
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 war in northern Mexico has become so sweeping that the U.S. military listed Mexico with Pakistan as two nations that could be on the brink of collapse. Mexico’s war is now considered more violent than the ongoing struggle in Iraq. At least 6,000 people have been killed in the last year – so far, 1,000 are dead in the first two months of 2009. Tactics have included the beheading of Mexican troops and the grisly display of corpses on freeway overpasses along the border.
"The same folks who are rolling heads in the streets of Ciudad Juárez" — 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. Shipments of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin are smuggled over the border and routed inland to Atlanta for storage in a network of stash houses. They are then trucked to distribution operations in the Carolinas, Tennessee, the Mid-Atlantic, New York and New England.
The bookkeeping is handled in the same manner, with Atlanta as the center for central accounting. The bundles of money are turned over to transportation units for bulk shipments back to Mexico.
The bad guys also can easily blend into a growing Hispanic presence in Atlanta. Nahmias told USA Today that northeast suburban Gwinnett County, about 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, is 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 percent 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," Rodney Benson, the DEA's Atlanta chief, told the paper. "They were attempting to blend into the same communities as those who were hard-working, law-abiding people."
"We've got direct linkages between cartel representatives who take their orders from cartel leadership in Mexico," Benson says.
So far, violence in Atlanta has been related to "intra-cartel discipline" and has not spilled into the streets, police say.
The growing concern over cartel penetration is prompting a series of hearings on the Mexico drug war that will be held later this month.
The Senate homeland security committee plans hearings March 25 in Washington on border-area violence, and another for April in Arizona.
"The southern border has always been on our radar screen as an entry point for narcotics and human smugglers, and others who might threaten our homeland security," Senate homeland security Chairman Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, told the Dallas Morning News. "But the recent escalation of violence along the southern border demands our immediate attention."
Lieberman’s panel will hold a hearing March 25 in Washington on border-area violence, with a second hearing planned for April in Arizona. The Senate will assess the violence on both sides of the border and whether federal, state and local authorities have sufficient personnel. Lieberman's committee also plans to review joint efforts with Mexico's government, which has been waging an increasingly violent war to disrupt and weaken drug cartels for more than two years.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has called on Homeland Security to send 1,000 more U.S. troops or federal agents to reinforce the border, though Washington says the violence on this side hasn't gotten bad enough to trigger a "surge" plan.
Lieberman also will look into potential deployments of National Guard troops and other measures, "and the potential for mass migration northward" – an ominous reference to the possibility that the drug war could eventually spur a flood of refugees, the Morning News reported.
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