The local sheriff’s deputies here snap bullet-filled magazines into their rifles and patrol in groups when they go near the Mexican border.
They have reasons to be on guard in Hudspeth County, a vast desert territory resembling a cowboy movie set. Vicious Mexican drug cartels smuggle cocaine, marijuana and illegal immigrants through west Texas and New Mexico to Atlanta and other major cities in the United States. Carloads of cash come right back.
Top U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials based in El Paso and Atlanta disclosed details about these cartels in exclusive interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They also confirmed they are cooperating in investigations of the transnational gangs.
Most illegal immigrants come to the United States to reunite with their families and find work. But ICE’s investigations highlight the ties illegal immigration can have with serious crime. News of the federal probes comes as Congress is considering legislation to tighten border security.
Georgia has been grappling with illegal immigration for years. The state was home to an estimated 425,000 illegal immigrants in 2010, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. State lawmakers enacted a sweeping law to crack down on the problem in 2011.
Meanwhile, law enforcement authorities reported seizing $165.1 million worth of drugs in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina last year. That is up nearly 60 percent from 2011. More than 90 percent of the drugs seized were from Mexican cartels, according to the Atlanta-Carolinas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federally funded anti-drug task force based in Atlanta.
A few examples of how transnational drug trafficking has hit home:
- Two high-ranking members of a Mexican cartel headed by a kingpin nicknamed “The Barbie” recently received lengthy prison terms for bringing truckloads of cocaine to Atlanta. The kingpin — Edgar Valdez Villareal of Laredo, Texas — is in custody in Mexico and faces federal charges here, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Atlanta division. In Mexico, he has been blamed for bloody drug and gang turf wars in which rivals were beheaded and hung from bridges.
- Federal court documents made public in June revealed a years-long investigation of a Mexican drug cartel operating in metro Atlanta. Couriers working for the cartel were ferrying large shipments of liquid methamphetamine over the border through Laredo, Texas, to the Atlanta area, the court records show.
- In 2011, Jose Pineda was sentenced in Gwinnett County to 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to orchestrating the distribution of millions of dollars worth of methamphetamine and cocaine in the United States. County prosecutors said he arranged for the smuggling of large drug shipments from Mexico.
The cartels are attracted to Georgia’s expansive network of interstates, while jobs here serve as magnets for illegal immigrants, law enforcement officials said.
“We stay as essentially the railhead for cartel activities serving the United States and Canada — east of the Mississippi River,” said Jack Killorin, director of Atlanta-Carolinas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Oscar Hagelsieb is an assistant special agent in charge of homeland security investigations for ICE in El Paso. From a nondescript office building near El Paso’s airport, Hagelsieb oversees investigations linking the El Paso area with Atlanta.
ICE, he said, is focusing on several brutal Mexican drug cartels, including the Zetas and the Sinaloa. Millions of dollars in drug proceeds are split up in Atlanta and shipped back in automobiles to Mexico through El Paso, Hagelsieb said.
“We know that the major cartels in Mexico have direct links to Atlanta,” said Hagelsieb, a beefy, tattooed agent with a long, pointy black beard. “High-ranking cartel members that were once in Mexico are now operating in Atlanta.”
Overseen by Mexican military deserters, the Zetas have been linked to drug smuggling, extortion, kidnappings, torture and killings — including beheadings, according to federal authorities.
The Sinaloa cartel — named after the western Mexican state from which it originated — has brought tons of narcotics from Mexico into the United States and laundered millions of dollars in proceeds, federal authorities said. Sinaloa has also been accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering its enemies.
Both gangs absorbed or killed off human-smuggling operations as they sought more sources of cash, said Hagelsieb, who also serves as the assistant special agent in charge for a task force of local, state and federal authorities combating transnational crime. The cartels are now moving illegal immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala through the outskirts of El Paso, Hagelsieb said. Once they cross the border, they catch rides to “stash houses,” where they await rides to Georgia.
“We know for a fact that the immigrants are being smuggled through the El Paso area,” said Hagelsieb, who has participated in undercover sting operations focusing on drug and human smuggling in Georgia. “And then they are stashed here for a few days. A lot of them end up in Atlanta.”
Symptoms of the problems are evident on both sides of El Paso. West of the city in Dona Ana County, N.M., authorities say they have been seizing large quantities of marijuana and cocaine coming from Mexico.
A U.S. Border Patrol spokesman confirmed his agency has been encountering motorists with DeKalb and Fulton county license plates attempting to smuggle drugs, illegal immigrants and large amounts of cash through Las Cruces, a New Mexico city northwest of El Paso.
East of El Paso in Hudspeth County, sheriff’s deputies have investigated about 2,100 drug cases so far this year — in a county with fewer than 4,000 residents. The county sheriff’s office fills with the skunk-like scent of marijuana whenever deputies swing open the doors to their evidence locker.
“What we do not catch in Hudspeth County could very well end up in Georgia in driving time the day after tomorrow — at the latest,” said Hudspeth Sheriff Arvin West.
Some of West’s deputies recently escorted an AJC reporter and photographer to a remote part of the border near Fort Hancock. It had rained recently. And horses were munching on a bright green carpet of grass beside the Rio Grande, just a sliver of shimmering water here. To Capt. Robert Wilson, the tranquility was deceiving.
Dragging on a Marlboro cigarette, Wilson gazed intently at Banderas, a city on the Mexican side of the border. Mexican criminals, he said, have been busy killing the town’s residents, or driving them out so they can use Banderas as a staging area to move drugs into the U.S.
A quiet lawman with a stag-grip pistol on his hip, Wilson doesn’t talk much about himself. He revealed he has Osage Native American ancestry and is a Navy veteran. But he doesn’t offer many details about his family. Informants, he said, have told him the drug cartels on the Mexican side of the river have put a price on his head. He said he was keeping quiet to protect his loved ones.
“The cartel has a community right across from where we are standing (where) they probably have a thousand pounds or more of marijuana ready to be transported into the United States,” he said. “So this is a hot place. It could erupt at any time.”
ABOUT THIS SERIES
- Sunday: More illegal immigrants are being captured — or dying — along the southwest border as the nation’s economy improves and Congress weighs overhauling the immigration system.
- Monday: Georgia can trace some of its troubles with vicious Mexican drug cartels and illegal immigration to the borders in New Mexico and West Texas.
HOW WE GOT THIS STORY
The southwest border is now ground zero in the national debate about immigration. So an Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer and photographer recently spent several days reporting on the borders in New Mexico and West Texas. They also interviewed dozens of law enforcement officials there and in Atlanta and reviewed numerous reports on border security.