The drug underworld leans on ironically divine symbols and characters — patron saints — to deliver them safely across the border, to skirt rivals and avoid law enforcement. Gwinnett authorities find tattoos, vehicle decals, jewelry, even shrines commemorating two saints more than others: The posthumous La Santa Muerta, a skeletal female with the likeness of a grim reaper, and Jesus Malverde, a mustachioed, black-haired legend considered “the Mexican Robin Hood” and coined by law enforcement “the Narco Saint.”
Shrines discovered on fireplace mantels throughout Gwinnett that pay homage to patron saints can be elaborate — and useful to prosecutors trying to prove stash-house occupants were aware of drug activity.
“You’ll usually find, if there’s drugs in the house or a shipment coming, the candles will be lit, and they’ll make an offering, like a can of beer or bottle of whiskey,” said Mike Morrison, a Gwinnett assistant district attorney assigned to cartel investigations. “In the stash houses, you can almost guarantee you’re going to find some patron saint. They believe they’ll be protected.”
Morrison said vehicle decals of patron saints have become less common, as local police have caught on. Other indications of drug trafficking are less blatant, less physical.
With meth labs so blended into the suburban tapestry, officials said spotting them can be a cumulative matter. Not necessarily a big, waving red flag, but idiosyncrasies that don’t gibe. For instance:
• Homes with windows perpetually covered, blinds drawn;
• Unrelated visitors, frequently coming and going;
• Vehicles with out-of-state tags, or temporary tags;
• Chemical odors;
• New, high fences; and
• Lack of curbside trash.
Meth-lab operators “don’t put their trash out,” said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter. “They dispose of it in other ways.”
Authorities credited community tipsters with pointing them to a Lawrenceville lab used in the meth conversion process on La Maison Drive in October 2009. The seizure included 174 pounds of meth, 17 kilos of cocaine and 13 firearms — and was called a major blow to the “La Familia” cartel. Thirty-one cartel operatives were arrested in Gwinnett, with another 303 apprehended nationwide.
A rattled mother of 12 who lived down the street told the Daily Post she’d noticed a pungent odor, like gasoline, wafting from the home. She’d also found it odd a red semitrailer had been parked there for days.
Mike Beaudreau, Gwinnett County commissioner, said the county has committed myriad resources to fight drug-trafficking, but “the best weapon we have for any community are the people and their eyes — folks that are vigilant and keep their eyes open,” he said. “If folks have a concern, they need to call 911.”
Statewide, meth lab confiscations are on the uptick, from 167 in 2008 to 257 last year, according to DEA figures. Most were smaller labs, capable of producing gram quantities. Some were little more than sealed containers used in the “one-pot method,” for personal use or low-level sales.
Federal officials admit the amount of meth in Gwinnett and other suburbs is hard to estimate, but they maintain that progress is self-evident.
“We’re continuing to put pressure on cartel leadership that they deploy up here,” said Rodney Benson, of Atlanta DEA. “We’re working with our Mexican counterparts to impact their operations down there as well. We have impacted their operations pretty significantly.”
“We don’t live in freakin’ Mayberry, y’all.”
That’s blog poster “Blondie” reacting to news of a gargantuan Duluth meth bust in May 2009, on a WSB radio site. Blondie continued:
“But I have to admit that I was certainly surprised that it was the biggest (on record, east of the Mississippi River, as officials reported at the time). That part was surprising for Gwinnett.”
Surprising though it may have been, the bust was followed in October that year by the Lawrenceville haul, and the reported mother lode in Norcross (roughly 1,000 pounds) a year later. Press conferences were called to announce each find. Media from CNN to upstart news bloggers flocked.
Are such high-profile events giving Gwinnett County a reputational black eye?
“That’s the problem when something like a meth bust happens — it makes the news and ultimately tends to reflect poorly on the community where it happened,” said Dr. Volkan Topalli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University, and director of the school’s crime and violence prevention policy. “But I don’t think it really says anything about the community. Sometimes it’s just a matter of bad luck that dealers decided they’d hole up in some area of Gwinnett.”
Added Beaudreau, the commissioner: “I guess it’s ‘perception is reality’ in a lot of cases,” he said. “It’s very difficult to control people’s thought processes. All we can do is everything in our power.”
For all the uptick in meth quantities and drug-related indictments, Porter said the seepage of meth into communities has remained steady. Data obtained by the Daily Post through the Georgia Open Records Act corroborates Porter’s theory.
Prosecutors use Gwinnett County Public Schools drug incident reports as a bellwether for the saturation of drugs in certain areas.
Based on data complied for the last five school years, incidents involving meth in Gwinnett schools have been all but eradicated. Busts fell from 12 in 2005-06, to six incidents, to none in 2009-10, according to school records obtained by the Daily Post.
“It’s ironic … we’re not really seeing an increase in meth usage in schools,” Porter said recently. “A lot of this dope is moving through Gwinnett, but not a lot more than we ever had is staying here.”
Of note is that student populations in Gwinnett — Georgia’s largest school district — increased by nearly 12,000 students to 169,157 in that timespan.
Marijuana incidents, meanwhile, jumped 29 percent, the data show.
Jorge Quintana, schools spokesperson, said the system annually reviews its board policies, but no major changes have been made since local drug cases spiked five years ago.
The explosion: Aftermath
Dispatch records obtained through another open records request show neighbors had reported suspicious activity — even drugs — at the Spring Mill Drive home in Lilburn four times since 2007. Three children died from injuries suffered in a reported meth-lab fire there one month ago today.
But neighborly vigilance can’t penetrate a front door that won’t open.
“They didn’t have contact with us, with anybody. Neighbors came to them, and they didn’t open the doors,” said Shyama Sariany, who lives across the street. “They had like three or four cars there. All the time, they were inside.”
The home bore Christmas lights through the holidays, jack-o-lanterns on Halloween.
“Outwardly, they tried to have the appearance that things were normal at that house,” a nearby resident said.
Spring Mill residents are left with an unavoidable reminder — and with the headache of not only maintaining the property grounds, but keeping their own children from exploring them. A letter circulated among the neighborhood solicits volunteers to cut the home’s grass.
“To sum up,” reads the Feb. 22 letter, “let’s use this unfortunate, tragic event as an opportunity to revitalize and take back our neighborhood.”
Three different agencies have scoured the home for harmful chemicals, and the busted, open windows fall on the homeowner’s shoulders. A Gwinnett police quality of life unit has posted a notice advising the homeowner to address safety issues at the home within a month.
“If 30 days elapses and the clean-up requirements aren’t met, we’ll take further action,” said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith in early March.
Efforts to control the neighborhood are transcending aesthetics.
Susan Shenefield, a Spring Mill resident of 20 years, has organized an initiative that asks residents to perform a simple, gracious task:
Knock on the doors to the left and right of your home, introduce yourself if you haven’t already, learn a little bit about your neighbor.
“There are so many that are part of this effort,” Shenefield said. “We’re anxious to have the property cleaned up and move on.”