The September conviction of a Texas truck driver with ties to a major Mexican drug cartel gives a snapshot of the domestic operations of drug importers from outside the U.S.
In September, a federal jury convicted Gilberto Avalos-Rivera, 41, a documented legal alien, for transporting 911 pounds of marijuana hidden in a load of papaya fruit from Texas to Atlanta.
Avalos-Rivera was working for La Familia – a Mexican drug cartel based in Michoacan, Mexico. The cartel also used property in suburban Atlanta, in Fayette County, GA, including a secluded multi-acre site that it used to off-load drugs and cash. Avalos-Rivera drove from Texas to the Atlanta-area to deliver the marijuana. Investigators seized nearly $2 million in cash hidden on property used in the operation.
“As Mexican drug distributors continue to deploy resources to the Atlanta Metropolitan area in an effort to carry out their drug distribution activities, DEA and its multi-level law enforcement partners will continue to strike at the core and dismantle these organizations from top to bottom,” U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said in a statement.
Rod Nofziger, OOIDA director of government affairs, said the La Familia operation shutdown in Georgia is unfortunately just the cost of doing business for Mexican cartels.
“Trucks crossing our Southern border are still the principal way drug traffickers get their products into the U.S.,” Nofziger said. “They may lose a load here or there, but the reality is that most of their dope will make it past the port of entry.”
Nofziger said the increasing presence of Mexican cartels operating within the U.S. would only be worsened by proposals to allow for Mexican trucks unfettered access to all U.S. highways.
“Opening our highways to Mexico-domiciled trucks and drivers will amplify vulnerabilities that already exist in our infrastructure,” Nofziger told Land Line. “Those vulnerabilities will undoubtedly be exploited by drug traffickers from Mexico.”
Several publications of the U.S. Department of Justice tie increased smuggling to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“The introduction of NAFTA had a major impact on the El Paso/Juarez area,” read one 2008 report. “Illicit transporters favor the exploitation of the commercial trucking industry to move bulk (multi-hundred kilogram) quantities of Colombian cocaine through the Houston Division. Smaller loads are routinely seized from privately owned vehicles or from couriers utilizing busses or the airlines. The El Paso-Juarez corridor serves as a trans-shipment point for cocaine to various locations in the U.S. Seized loads range from 50-800 pounds.”
According to the National Drug Intelligence Center’s 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment, the U.S. seized more than 1,626 metric tons of illegal drugs from January through November 2009, a fraction of the estimated several thousand tons of cocaine, meth, marijuana and heroin imported into the U.S. annually by drug traffickers.
The El Paso Intelligence Center says that contraband sent by Mexican drug cartels is usually hidden among produce.
The La Familia operation in Texas and Georgia was investigated by Drug Enforcement Administration agents, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, the Henry County Police Department and the Georgia State Patrol.
Capt. Jody Thomas of the Fayette, GA Sheriff’s Office said Mexican cartels have made their presence felt increasingly in suburban Atlanta in recent years. Atlanta’s position between several highway corridors makes it attractive to locate operation centers for drugs to be distributed and transported for sale on the street along the Eastern Seaboard, Thomas said.
“I’d say that over the last 10 years, we’ve participated in numerous cases where awesome amounts of narcotics and cash were seized,” Thomas told Land Line. “Since about 2001, we’ve really become a hub in the Atlanta area.
“I started working 25 years ago in a small town that never had more than three or four cops on duty,” Thomas said. “It used to be we’d spend half our nights stopping at the convenience stores and saying, ‘hey.’ Now it’s just unreal what we’re seeing. We’re earning our money.”
Federal drug investigators confirm Thomas’ observations.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, of the 327 official land, maritime and air ports of entry into the U.S., 88 percent of all drug seizures occurred at just 20 of the ports.
“From these and other (ports of entry), drug shipments are transported to dozens of national and regional distribution centers through eight principal corridors to the major drug markets within the United States,” the National Drug Threat Assessment 2010 report states.
That report cites “Corridor A,” mainly Interstates 10, Interstate 8 and Interstate 20 as being “the primary route for drug trafficking organizations transporting multi-ton quantities of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine from the southwest border to eastern U.S. drug markets.”
The investigation into Avalos-Rivera also resulted in charges for Roberto Huff of College Park, GA, who pleaded guilty to possessing more than 100 kilograms of marijuana with intent to distribute; Oscar Morfin-Vargas, 29, of Ellenwood, GA, who was charged with drug conspiracy and money laundering; and Enrique Morfin of Mexico, charged with drug conspiracy and money laundering.
Vargas, who is a citizen of Mexico and was illegally living in the U.S., pleaded guilty in early November to drug and money laundering charges. Huff pleaded guilty earlier this year to the possessing with intent to distribute charge.
– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer