Page last updated at 15:23 GMT, Saturday, 2 May 2009 16:23 UK

Atlanta Vice: A new US drugs hub?

By Emilio San Pedro
BBC News, Atlanta

US officials believe that Atlanta has become the principal distribution point for the Mexican drugs cartels in the eastern and southern US.

Sky scrapers, downtown Atlanta
Mexican drug cartels make use of Atlanta's location

"If they were making the television show Miami Vice today it would probably be more appropriately called Metro Atlanta Vice, but with some distinctions," says Jack Killorin, director of Atlanta's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) unit.

HIDTAs are anti-drug programmes run by the US Office of National Drug Control Policy.

His comments about the seriousness of the situation in Atlanta have raised more than a few eyebrows and attracted a great deal of media attention in recent weeks.

Atlanta, after all, is best known as the economic powerhouse of the American South - the home of powerful multinationals like Coca-Cola and the parcel service, UPS.

It seems a far cry from the drug-fuelled violence and flashy 1980s cars and lifestyles depicted in television programmes like Miami Vice.

The drugs violence and the Colombian cartels which ran drugs-trafficking then have long ago vanished from the streets of Miami, despite the lingering image.

Jack Killorin, Head of the US Office of Drug Control Policy High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area office in Atlanta
Their (the Mexican gangs) goal is to blend into the background as successfully as possible
Jack Killorin

"I believe that the Mexican cartels, in taking over the distribution of narcotics and cocaine into the United States, learned some lessons from the Colombians," says Mr Killorin.

"One of the lessons they learned is that living a big and visible lifestyle is certainly the way to get a lot of law enforcement to pay a lot of attention to you."

The gangs - mainly the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels - keep a much lower profile. Not for them the flashy sports cars and luxury homes that helped precipitate the demise of the Colombian traffickers in Miami.

Blending in

The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that drugs smuggled over the border generate more than $28bn (£19bn) a year. That is why maintaining a low-key profile in a city like Atlanta makes good business sense.

"The Mexican cartel members operating here are not into the big cars or Rolex watches. If they are, they have them in Mexico. Here their operations are far more business-like and workmanlike and their goal is to blend into the background as successfully as possible," Mr Killorin said.

US officials say the Mexican cartels have turned Atlanta and the surrounding area into a major operational hub for the distribution of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs. And a key reason is the city's location - connected by three major motorways to large swathes of the US.

From here they can transport narcotics to major cities like Washington DC, New York and Miami in 12 hours or less without drawing much attention.

One recent hotspot for cartel activity is the middle-class suburbs of Gwinnett County.

The regional head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Atlanta, Rod Benson, brought me to an inconspicuous two-storey suburban house on a leafy street.

Special Agent Rod Benson, DEA's Atlanta office
Rod Benson: Atlanta's violence is nowhere near that of Mexico

It was being used by alleged cartel members as a stash house for drugs.

As we sit in his police car outside the house, Agent Benson recounts what happened.

"We had an individual from Rhode Island, a Dominican national, who owed Gulf Cartel representatives here in Atlanta $300,000 (£201,000). He was brought to this house where he was held captive for over a week and beaten," Agent Benson says.

Fortunately, investigators managed to arrest three Mexican nationals who had weapons inside the house and rescue the man.

'Legalise it'

Agent Benson is quick to point out that such violence is rare and no way near the scale of that faced by Mexico.

But the increased presence of the Mexican cartels and the seemingly unending problem of illegal drug use have led to renewed calls for the legalisation of all or some of the drugs the cartels smuggle into the US, especially marijuana.

At a local Atlanta late-night hang-out, a group of young people react to the reports that the Mexican cartels have turned their city into a major hub.

They are far from impressed and suggest that maybe it is time America considers legalising drugs - at the very least cannabis.

"You're feeding me this Miami Vice-style drama about how I should be terrified of these Mexican cartel guys that are coming to America," says one.

"Guess what? Drugs exist. Put the money into helping the addicts instead," he adds.

"I'm more afraid of someone being drunk and driving and killing me on the highway that I am of some Mexican drug lord," a young woman called Lucy says.

Jack Killorin is dismissive of calls for legalisation.

"Legalise what?" he asks.

"Are we talking about the 5% THC ditch weed that somebody's grandmother smoked back in college in the 60s or the 30% THC hydroponically-grown genetically- altered marijuana that's in high demand and widely circulated today?

"You know, saying the word legalise, I think that happens to be one of those words that conveys a sense of meaning and until you talk to each other you don't realise that actually we don't mean the same thing at all," Mr Killorin says.

Whatever the case, the legalisation of drugs like marijuana as a way out of drugs-related violence is not something that appears to be anywhere near becoming a reality, despite the passage of laws in several states approving the medical use of marijuana or decriminalising the possession of small amounts of the drug.

In the meantime, the US and Mexico are moving towards closer co-operation in the fight against traffickers, both in the violence-plagued border cities of Mexico and the increasingly powerful hubs for the distribution of drugs in the US, like Atlanta.


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