There was something funny about the El Parral Carniceria y Fruteria grocery store in Lawrenceville. Customers walked in empty-handed, and appeared to leave the same way.
Other proprietors in the shopping strip at 199 E. Crogan Street thought the Mexican grocery store must be peddling something other than the sparse selection of merchandise on its shelves. Apparently, their suspicions were correct.
Gwinnett County police announced Monday that the store was a front for a brisk, street-level drug business that had been going on for over a year. A four-month-long investigation culminated Friday when police served search warrants at the grocery store and at separate residences on Stanley Road in Dacula and on Brandy Court in Lawrenceville.
As a result of the operation, police arrested eight people and seized seven pounds of cocaine, 1,561 grams of methamphetamine, 987 grams of marijuana, four vehicles, six guns and $136,132 in U.S. currency.
"The dismantling of this organization shows the complexity of these organizations we continue to face," said Gwinnett County Police Chief Charles Walters.
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said that the grocery store was a collection point. Larger quantities of drugs were received there and then broken into smaller pieces to be distributed. Police said the store stocked very little legitimate merchandise. Photographs provided at the news conference showed a glass display counter at the store that was devoid of any food.
The eight people arrested were: Maria Martinez, 48, of Dacula; Miguel Lopez, 24, of Dacula; Dustin Lancaster, 29, of Atlanta; Pedro Pineda, 29, of Lawrenceville; Elizar Escobedo, 24, of Lawrenceville, Enrique Jaime-Jaime, 37, of Dacula; Raymond Murray, 33, of Augusta; and Oliver Isaola, 29, of Dalton.
All are being held without bond at the Gwinnett jail except Raymond Murray, who was arrested on September 18th and released on $39,900 bond.
Rufy Munez, who works at a tax preparation company next to the grocery store, said it was obvious something about the neighboring business was amiss. She said not only were customers leaving without food, but the shopping strip had become the target of frequent break-ins and robberies.
"It really scares me," Munez said. "Hopefully [the police] did get them all."
Porter said that the investigation was not tied to a larger narcotics operation announced last week involving La Familia, a Mexican drug cartel. That investigation, which included a raid on a methamphetamine lab in Lawrenceville, was part of a nationwide sweep that resulted in the arrest of 303 people in 38 cities.
"Last week was wholesale," Porter said. "This week is retail. These drugs were going to be on the streets of Gwinnett County."
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