Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
More than $10 million worth of drugs were seized during the recent takedown of a major Mexico-based drug cartel's local distribution cell, Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said on Thursday.
Lawson and officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's Atlanta Field Division, and the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said 45 people tied to a Clayton County-based cell of the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel have been arrested.
Eight more people tied to the cell are still being sought for arrest, Lawson added. The arrests are part of Operation Choke Hold, against the cartel's Atlanta interests, she said.
During the arrests, which have been ongoing since late September, law enforcement agents from multiple agencies have seized 4,120 pounds of marijuana, 46 pounds of methamphetamine, 43 kilograms of cocaine, 20 firearms, six vehicles and $2.35 million in U.S. currency, Lawson said.
She added that the money could have been used to buy guns to fight officials in Mexico -- if it had made it back to that country.
The District Attorney said the cell was distributing drugs in Clayton, Henry, Spalding, Cobb and Gwinnett counties, as well as Alabama, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana and Washington D.C., but the cell was based in Clayton County.
"They were deeply entrenched," she emphasized. "We were the nexus. They were here because [Interstates] 75, 85 and 20 all cross each other in Atlanta. It's a one-day drive from the border, and the airport is here. They are more driving it [the drugs in], than flying it."
Lawson said the people who have, so far, been arrested are scheduled to be arraigned Monday, at 9 a.m., in Clayton County Superior Court.
A Sept. 29 Clayton County grand jury indictment shows 43 people tied to the drug cell were indicted on several charges, including conspiracy to traffick in marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine; conspiracy to avoid currency transaction reporting; violation of the Georgia Controlled Substances Act, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
Lawson said several people, who were not listed in the indictment, also have been arrested. Clayton County Chief Assistant District Attorney Erman Tanjuatco said 38 of the people arrested were listed in the indictment.
"Normally, we see prosecution of people for possession of drugs, or first-tier dealers, maybe second-tier dealers, but never in my career have I been involved in the takedown of an entire drug trafficking operation," Lawson said.
The La Familia Michoacana drug cartel is based in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan, and uses murder, kidnapping and assaults to keep its drug-trafficking business going, according to a Drug Enforcement Agency news release.
It has several cells in the Atlanta area, designed to help distribute drugs across the U.S., said Steve Comer, an associate special agent from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's Atlanta Field Division.
"La Familia is obviously just one of many drug cartels that have cells in this area," Comer said. "This particular cell has been disbanded."
Lawson said Operation Choke Hold has been going on since March 2009, when it began against another La Familia Michoacana drug cell in Gwinnett County. She said it moved south, to Spalding County, later in the year, as law enforcement went after the local cell. She said the focus finally shifted to Clayton County in December 2009, which is when her office got involved.
Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Director Jack Killorin said the arrest of so many people in a single La Familia Michoacana cell should represent a strong blow to the drug cartel. "Drugs and guns can be replaced, but trusted confidants, who worked to expand your operations? Not so easily replaceable," he said.
Among the people arrested is Rex resident, Samuel Galvan, said Erman Tanjuatco.
A Drug Enforcement Agency-created organizational chart for the cell showed Galvan serving as the Clayton County cell's alleged link to cells in California and North Carolina.
Tanjuatco said Galvan was arrested in Henry County. He has been indicted on charges of conspiracy to traffick in marijuana, conspiracy to traffick in cocaine, and conspiracy to traffick in methamphetamine.
Another high-ranking cell official on the organizational chart was Hugo Rodriguez, who was shown as the alleged link between drug suppliers in Mexico, and the Clayton County cell. The organizational chart showed that he allegedly oversaw everyone else in the cell.
Tuanjuatco said Rodriguez was arrested in Fulton County earlier this year, in connection with the drug operation, but he was released on bond before he was indicted in September, in Clayton County. The chief assistant district attorney was not sure if Rodriguez had been re-arrested since the indictment, but officials at the Clayton County jail said they did not have him in custody on Thursday.
Rodriguez has been indicted on charges of conspiracy to traffick in marijuana, conspiracy to traffick in cocaine, conspiracy to traffick in methamphetamine, and conspiracy to avoid currency transaction reporting.
Lawson said she hopes the disbanding of the cell will send a message to other drug cells in the Atlanta area that they will not be safe in Clayton County.
"They think they'll be able to come down here, fly under the radar, and not get caught," she said. "Hopefully, they'll now say, 'Oh Clayton County is getting tough on drugs, we better not go there.'"