Quiet Atlanta suburbs draw drug cartels

The man who lived on a quiet cul-de-sac in Forsyth County appeared to be an ordinary guy.

He ran a small fencing company. His grade-school-aged children played with others in the subdivision. His lifestyle was simple and unassuming.

Neighbors in the Whisper Walk subdivision in Cumming had no idea that Paul Longoria was using his business as a front for cocaine trafficking until authorities arrested him in 2007. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison on felony drug charges a year later in federal court.

"We were shocked," said Kevin Hopkins, who lives two doors down from Longoria's former home. "He was a real quiet guy."

Suburban Atlanta may not be so quiet anymore. Federal authorities say the footprint of operations for Mexican cartels is expanding beyond the city and its immediate suburbs into outlying rural counties and even areas of North Carolina.

Last year, the Office of National Drug Control Policy labeled Barrow, Bartow, Cherokee, Clayton, Douglas, Fayette and Forsyth counties as high-intensity drug trafficking areas. That designation allows the counties to receive federal grant money and training to combat the problem.

Capt. Paul Taylor, commander of criminal investigations for the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office, said the discovery of Paul Longoria's drug smuggling operation in Cumming was an eye-opener.

"When we saw that — in that quantity, involving that much money — it kind of opened a new door there," Taylor said. "It was something we had not seen before."

Sheriff Roger Garrison of Cherokee County said he is seeing the same trends in his area, particularly along the southwest border of Cherokee, where there has been a rise in drug-related home invasions.

"One of the most alarming trends of the last 12 to 18 months is the amount of violence involved with these primarily Hispanic gangs that are moving some pretty major amounts of drugs," Garrison said.

The Mexican cartels responsible for transporting 99 percent of illicit drugs into the United States are "studiously low-key," said Jack Killorin, director of the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force.

"They are trying not to interact in the communities in a way which draws attention," Killorin said.

Those methods are in stark contrast to the high-profile "Miami Vice" days. Mexican drug traders do not live in fancy houses or terrorize the community at large. Most are recruited from Mexico and still live in Mexico. Very little of their profits are even spent in the United States, Killorin said.

Killorin said Mexican drug trafficking organizations are running an estimated $28.5 billion-a-year business, and yet the U.S. government only intercepts about $1 billion of it.

Last year, the Atlanta division of the Drug Enforcement Administration intercepted about $70 million of the drug lords' cash, more than any other region in the country.

Chuvalo Truesdell, a spokesman for the DEA, said Atlanta is primarily a "cocaine town," but Mexican cartels also deal in marijuana, methamphetamine and black tar heroin here. They often rent houses in middle-class neighborhoods to conduct their illegal activities, and owners and neighbors are clueless, Truesdell said.

Drug trafficking organizations, especially the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, use Atlanta as a distribution hub because it sits astride major interstates, Killorin said.

An international airport, extensive rail system and proximity to the port in Savannah are key to moving shipments throughout the eastern United States.

Metro Atlanta's core counties of Gwinnett, DeKalb, Cobb and Fulton were labeled high-intensity drug-trafficking areas several years ago.

Experts say Gwinnett is an epicenter of trafficking. Gwinnett police seized record amounts of drugs in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Cartel operatives find it easier to "hide in plain sight" among the county's large Hispanic immigrant population, Killorin said.

About 17 percent of the county's 776,000 people are Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Last month, local police and federal agents raided 10 locations the Gulf cartel allegedly used to warehouse drugs and money in Gwinnett. Seventeen suspected members of the Gulf cartel were arrested as a result of the investigation, dubbed Operation Grand Finale.

Average citizens in the United States have been largely untouched by cartel violence and thefts, although there have been instances of kidnappings and killings within the drug smugglers' ranks, said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter.

"At this point we're not seeing the type of street warfare they are seeing in Mexico, where citizens are endangered," said Porter.

What has members of the federal narcotics task force worried is that instability within cartels could result in more violence.

In March 2008, federal authorities say cartel operatives were behind a home invasion robbery at an apartment complex off Beaver Ruin Road near Norcross.

Two men suspected of drug involvement were shot and wounded in that incident.

Twenty high-powered assault rifles were seized from suspected Gulf cartel members during Operation Grand Finale last month.

"If they wanted to have impact on the community, they would have a dreadful impact in the community," Killorin said.