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Trucks leaving the region can reach more than 80 percent of the U.S. population within two days, according to the Atlanta Metro Chamber of Commerce.
“There’s all kinds of warehouses,” the DEA’s Mr. Benson said. “So there’s all kinds of ability to rent a warehouse one day and use it for three or four months and switch over and the ease of coming off a truck stop and parking with a load of cocaine concealed in, say, a load of produce.”
The drugs and, later, money — sometimes as much as $10 million in heat-sealed, tamper-proof containers — frequently are packaged on trucks shipping all manner of legitimate goods. Sometimes the drivers are in on it, authorities say; sometimes not.
U.S. Attorney David Nahmias, whose district includes metro Atlanta, likes to tell the story of the time agents found $1 million hidden in barrels of pig parts being shipped to Mexico.
“I remember it because the agents still talk about having to throw away their clothes after diving into these barrels,” he said. “But that’s a good example of how sophisticated and how hard these things are to find.”
The Atlanta region’s changing demographics also have allowed it to take its place among the nation’s traditional drug hubs, which include border towns like Laredo, Texas, and port cities like Miami.
“The thing we always say which seems most stunning to people is we now ship more drugs from Atlanta to Florida than we get we from Florida, including occasionally shipping cocaine to Miami, which is remarkable,” Mr. Nahmias said.
Just northeast of Atlanta, Gwinnett County, where Mr. Haro-Perez was arrested, has become a ground zero of sorts for Mexican drug cartels, according to authorities.
The county’s population has more than doubled since 1990, and authorities say the Hispanic, particularly Mexican, population has exploded with a mixture of both legal and illegal immigrants.
According to U.S. Census data, Hispanics made up less than 2.5 percent of Gwinnett County’s population in 1990, a number that increased to 11 percent in 2000 and was up to 16 percent by 2007.
“We emphasize that the vast majority of those people have nothing to do with drug dealing, but what they do is they allow the Mexican cartels, almost all of whose operatives are Mexican, to hide in plain sight,” Mr. Nahmias said.
Fifteen years ago, he said, four young Hispanic men coming in and out of a house at all hours of the night might make neighbors suspicious. Now they could be painters or construction workers, and there could be 10 other households like theirs on a street.
And so, he says, “It’s much harder to tell that one of them is a drug stash house where there are 100 kilos of cocaine or $10 million.”