0

Operation attacks cartel, flow of cocaine through Clayton

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

One hundred, seventy-five members of an alleged drug-trafficking cartel were arrested, in an operation stretching from Clayton County to Laredo, Texas, and from Columbia to Mexico, to American shipping warehouses.

United States Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey announced the arrests on Wednesday. He said the 175 are accused of working for, and running, an international drug trafficking organization, called the Gulf Cartel. The cartel, believed to be based in Mexico, allegedly transported cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana from Colombia, Guatemala, Panama and Mexico to the U.S., through Laredo, Texas.

The Clayton County Police Department's drug task force has seized tons of the cartel's marijuana and cocaine, as it was shipped through the northern portions of the county. Clayton's narcotics officers played a role in the Drug Enforcement Agency's Atlanta-area investigation of the Gulf Cartel network.

Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner said the officers "basically caused damage to the cartel, in terms of it being able to refinance its operations ... In terms of what it means for us, less drugs are on the streets of Clayton County and metro Atlanta, and I think that's very significant."

According to United States Attorney David E. Nahmias, the local portion of the investigation led to 34 criminal indictments and dismantled the cartel's Atlanta cell.

Nahmias, at a press conference Wednesday morning, said the Atlanta-area drug traffickers "acted like many shipping businesses, coordinating the transportation of truckloads of hidden drugs and millions of dollars in currency across the country and to and from Mexico. Through our sophisticated investigation and prosecutions, we have disrupted these organizations, seized large amounts of their poisons and proceeds, and now, will work hard to lock up their members for many years to come."

The national operation was called "Project Reckoning." The local part of the "multi-jurisdictional takedown" was called "Operation Confluence."

Undercover narcotics officers from Clayton County assisted in the operation with a series of seizures in 2007 and early 2008. All of them involved massive quantities of illegal drugs, disguised and shipped in big-rig trucks like any other cargo, but caught in Clayton County warehouses.

In February 2007, the DEA tracked a truck carrying more than a ton of Mexican marijuana, worth about $5 million, from Laredo, to a warehouse outside Forest Park. Clayton County Police seized the load, which was compressed, bundled and hidden inside sheetrock. In September 2007, another load from Laredo was seized. Narcotics officers, working with a trucking and warehousing company, found 167 kilos of uncut cocaine, hidden in McDonald's McNugget boxes.

Three months later, officers seized another shipment of cocaine, which came from the same warehouse, bore the same shipping manifest and was connected back, by DEA agents, to the Gulf Cartel. The 66.8 captured kilos were estimated to be worth about $8 million, if sold on the streets of metro Atlanta.

On January 8, this year, the county's narcotics officers seized a third shipment. The officers found 66 kilos of cocaine beneath a false floor on the bottom of a crate shipped from the same warehouse, to the same warehouse, and easily identified as suspicious.

Nationally, the multi-agency operation seized 16,711 kilos of cocaine, 51,258 pounds of marijuana, $60.1 million, and netted 507 arrests.

In Georgia, there were alleged cartel associates arrested on charges of conspiracy to posses cocaine and marijuana with the intent to distribute; possession of cocaine and marijuana with the intent to distribute; and money laundering.

"Will this stop drugs?" Chief Turner said Wednesday. "No, it's not going to stop, but any time we can, we cripple somebody's drug business in hopes of putting them out of business. That is our objective."

Rodney G. Benson, special agent charge of the DEA's Atlanta Field Division, attributed the success of "Operation Confluence" to inter-agency cooperation.

"Our success," he said Wednesday, "came as a direct result of the spirited cooperation between our law enforcement counterparts on all levels. We have set the bar high and have achieved great results. Our ultimate goal, however, is to completely eradicate these criminal enterprises, and we will not rest until this mission is achieved."