ATLANTA | Angel Haro-Perez certainly didn’t look like a drug lord.
Police and federal agents arrested him in December 2007 in a rented house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood about a half-hour’s drive from downtown Atlanta. The raised ranch is tucked off the interstate, where billboards advertise $69.99 motel rooms and secondary highways are dotted with strip malls and commercial shipping centers.
Inside, agents found air mattresses on the floor, a few changes of clothes, a laptop computer.
And $750,000 in cash stuffed in closets.
“You’d see this guy on a street corner and you’d say, ‘He could barely rub two nickels together,’” said Rodney Benson, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Atlanta Field Division, “never mind he’s here directly taking orders from representatives in Mexico.”
Authorities say Mr. Haro-Perez was the Atlanta head of the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful drug-trafficking organizations, in charge of distributing drugs, collecting proceeds and keeping the books for the entire operation.
Mr. Haro-Perez’s lawyer, Thomas Wooldridge, says his client is an American citizen who has no connection to Mexican drug cartels and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He faces life in prison and is scheduled for trial later this month.
Authorities say Mr. Haro-Perez is typical of cartel members and associates working in the U.S.: They keep a low profile, avoid violence and work quietly to traffic tons of drugs — cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine — into the U.S. while smuggling billions of dollars back across the border. And they do it while remaining virtually invisible to the community and general public.
While brutal violence among drug-trafficking groups in Mexico, especially along the U.S. border, has drawn unprecedented attention from politicians, the media and the American public, among U.S. law enforcement officials, the cartels are old news. They’ve been seeping into American cities for more than a decade; a 2008 report noted the presence of distribution networks linked to them in 203 cities throughout the U.S.
In that time, the metropolitan Atlanta region has emerged as one of the nation’s richest drug-distribution hubs, which authorities say supplies most of the eastern U.S. In 2008, DEA agents in the Atlanta region led the U.S. with $70 million in drug-related seizures.
A perfectly placed hub
The Atlanta region has always been perfect for the shipping industry. On a map, the city appears to have spokes with highways jutting out in all directions.
Drug traffickers have taken advantage of this.
“This is a place where I’d expect a business model like UPS to start up,” said Jack Kilorin, head of Atlanta’s federal High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which analyzes drug intelligence and helps coordinate law enforcement response. The cartels “have exploited a highway and communications and transportation hub. They’re thugs, but they are not entirely stupid.”
TWT RELATED STORY:
• Mexican cartels fill voids in drug trade
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.”
Kidnappings and killings
In the world of drug trafficking, there are no arbitrators or high-priced lawyers to settle business disputes. Violence is conflict resolution.
The oft-repeated number of more than 10,000 killed during the past two years in Mexico’s drug war, which includes assassinations and beheadings, has sparked outrage and driven interest. Drug cartels operating in America haven’t engaged in nearly that level of violence, though authorities remain fearful, especially about the safety of law enforcement officers as raid after raid has revealed the cartels to be extremely well-armed.
They’ve carried out kidnappings and killings near the border in places such as Phoenix and even as far from the border as Alabama. In a well-publicized case near Birmingham, four men were tortured and killed and their throats slit in retaliation over an apparent drug debt.
The Atlanta region had its own well-publicized kidnapping.
In July, Oscar Reynoso, a 31-year-old Dominican national, was lured from Rhode Island to the Atlanta area under the guise of bringing a car title to a man identified only as Tio in court documents. The DEA describes him as an upper-management level member of the Gulf Cartel.
Mr. Reynoso also owed a $300,000 drug debt to Tio, who authorities say has links to both Atlanta and Dallas.
Tio met Mr. Reynoso outside a Waffle House restaurant and drove him in a Jeep Wrangler to a stately Colonial in a nearby neighborhood of cul-de-sacs in Lilburn, about seven miles from Mr. Haro-Perez’s working-class neighborhood. They drove onto a street called East Fork Shady Drive, past signs warning of running children and over speed bumps that help enforce the 20 mph speed limit.
When Tio pulled the Jeep into the garage, Mr. Reynoso told authorities, seven men with guns lay in wait.
He was beaten and dragged into the basement beneath handsome hardwood floors. His captors bound him to a metal chair with chains around his ankles and zip ties around his wrists. They covered his mouth with black tape.
He was held hostage for the better part of a week before he was rescued by DEA agents who learned of the kidnapping from a wiretap.
Agents arrested three Mexican nationals who had entered the U.S. illegally after being summoned specifically to take part in the kidnapping. They have since pleaded guilty.
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, whose jurisdiction includes Lilburn and Norcross, where Mr. Haro-Perez was arrested, says authorities made arrests in about five similar kidnappings last year.
Still, authorities consider the violence here relatively minimal. They say the Mexican cartels, which have included not only the Gulf Cartel, but also the powerful Sinaloa Cartel and others, seem content to operate as major distributors and stay away from street-level dealing, the source of most drug-related violence in the U.S.
Mr. Porter calls the cartels an example of capitalism in its purest form: They took control of the markets with an abundance of products and the lowest prices.
“We’re not seeing shootouts in the streets,” Mr. Porter said. “In fact, they’re doing their best not to draw attention to themselves.”
Violence, after all, brings police attention, and that can be very bad for business.
A low-key lifestyle
Since 1986, James Boltz has lived in a house, shadowed by towering power lines, across the street from where Mr. Haro-Perez was arrested. The neighborhood has changed drastically over the past two decades, he says, and is now predominantly Mexican.
He has no recollection of Mr. Haro-Perez and “never knew” a sophisticated drug operation was apparently run out of the house across the street.
“We’ve had so many people living in that house,” said Mr. Boltz, a production manager for a window company.
It’s a neighborhood of modest houses with drab, peeling paint, and every fifth or sixth home appears vacant, with foreclosure notices posted on doors or front windows.
On a recent weekday afternoon, children on bicycles roamed the streets and a pair of boys on dirt bikes zipped around the neighborhood, always on the lookout for police. Teenagers huddled around mailboxes or on porches.
Law enforcement officials say it’s exactly the type of neighborhood the drug cartels favor.
“You would see Miami in the ‘80s, the jewelry and all that,” said the DEA’s Mr. Benson. “[Now] I see cars that are very nondescript. I think there’s a conscious effort to be nondescript, low on the radar screen.”
Mr. Nahmias agrees the cartel workers, whose numbers authorities cannot be sure of, do not share the ostentatious lifestyles of many street-level dealers. The U.S. attorney notes the irony in the case of the Black Mafia Family, a violent street gang.
“They would live large and have limos and stuff, but they were getting their drugs from the Mexican cartel,” Mr. Nahmias said. “Probably the guy that was selling them 20 kilos was living in some little house, sleeping on a mattress on the floor.”
Federal authorities say Mexican drug cartels bring in as much as $38 billion annually, but little of that money stays in the U.S.
Smuggling cash back across the border is as important to the cartels as sneaking drugs in. The two sides of the operation are often kept separate for security reasons, and the overall sophistication of the cartels requires law enforcement to employ equally intricate investigative techniques.
It was a sprawling investigation using wiretaps that eventually led authorities to Mr. Haro-Perez. On transcripts included in court documents, the man authorities say is Mr. Haro-Perez is called “Ace” and appears to be very much in charge.
But Mr. Wooldridge, the defense attorney, says that man is not his client and disputes the government’s identification of his client as “Ace.” He said the government had no one else to blame, so prosecutors decided to accuse Mr. Haro-Perez of running the operation.
“The government thinks he is someone who he is not,” he said. “There was nothing illegal at all, probably made some bad choices about where he slept that night, that’s probably the worst thing he did.”
Mr. Wooldridge was reluctant to speak about the case in great detail but said his client was new to town and simply sleeping at the home in Norcross when he was arrested.
Fernando Herrera, who lives next door to the house where Mr. Haro-Perez was arrested, remembers waking up for work the morning Mr. Haro-Perez was arrested and seeing “a lot of police outside.”
Mr. Herrera said that was the first time he had any notion his neighbors could be trouble.
“I never seen nothing over there,” he said. “I don’t know too much about those people.”