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No longer 'next door'

MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

The drug war has spread to the U.S. -- to suburbs, tiny towns, even Anchorage and Honolulu. Arrests and violence mount.

November 16, 2008|Richard A. Serrano and Sam Quinones | Serrano and Quinones are Times staff writers.

SAN DIEGO AND LILBURN, GA — The drug violence that has left about 4,000 people dead this year in Mexico is spreading deep into the United States, leaving a trail of slayings, kidnappings and other crimes in at least 195 cities as far afield as Atlanta, Boston, Seattle and Honolulu, according to federal authorities.

The involvement of the top four Mexican drug-trafficking organizations in distribution and money-laundering on U.S. soil has brought a war once dismissed as a foreign affair to the doorstep of local communities.

Residents of the quiet Beaver Hills subdivision in Lilburn, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, awoke to the trans-border crime wave in July, when a brigade of well-armored federal and state police officers surrounded a two-story colonial home at 755 East Fork Shady Drive, ordered neighbors to lock their doors and flushed out three men described as members of a Mexican drug cartel. One was captured after he tried to slip down a storm drain. Another was caught in the ivy in Pete Bogerd's backyard. He lives two doors up and is president of the neighborhood association.

"It blew us away," Bogerd said. "I didn't know we had that many cops."

A short while later, police hauled out a 31-year-old from the Dominican Republic who for nearly a week had been chained and tortured inside the basement, allegedly for not paying a $300,000 drug debt.

In the months after, several dozen suspects have been charged with moving drugs and money for Mexican traffickers through Atlanta, which has emerged as an important hub for thriving narcotics markets in the Eastern United States.

Few regions of the nation have been immune -- even Anchorage reported activity by the Tijuana drug cartel led by the Arellano Felix family, according to federal law enforcement agencies.

In suburban San Diego, six men believed to be part of a rogue faction of the Arellano Felix organization have been accused in connection with as many as a dozen murders and 20 kidnappings over a three-year span.

Last month, three armed men disguised as police officers broke into a Las Vegas home, tied up a woman and her boyfriend and abducted the woman's 6-year-old boy. Authorities said the men were tied to a Mexican drug smuggling operation and were trying to recoup proceeds allegedly stolen by the child's grandfather. The boy, Cole Puffinburger, was found unharmed three days later. Federal authorities have charged his grandfather, Clemons Fred Tinnemeyer, with racketeering, after he allegedly mailed $60,000, believed to be drug proceeds, from Mississippi to Nevada. Police continue to search for the kidnappers.

In September, authorities announced that 175 alleged members of Mexico's Gulf cartel had been rounded up across the country and abroad. Of those, 43 had been active in the Atlanta area, they said.

The arrests were part of Project Reckoning, an 18-month investigation that tracked criminal activity in the U.S. by the Mexican cartels. All told, Project Reckoning authorities have arrested 507 people and seized more than $60 million in cash, 16,000 kilograms of cocaine, half a ton of methamphetamine, 19 pounds of heroin and 51 pounds of marijuana.

Last month federal authorities in Atlanta announced indictments against 41 people they said were trafficking drugs and laundering money for Mexican cartels. Among those netted in Operation Pay Cut were a former deputy sheriff from Texas who was stopped on a Georgia highway with nearly $1 million in cash in his pickup.

The footprints of Mexican smuggling operations are on all but two states, Vermont and West Virginia, according to federal reports. Mexican organizations affiliated with the so-called Federation were identified in 82 cities, mostly in the Southwest, according to an April report by the National Drug Intelligence Center, an arm of the Department of Justice.

Elements of the Juarez cartel were identified in at least 44 cities, from West Texas to Minneapolis. Gulf cartel affiliates were operating in at least 43 cities from South Texas to Buffalo, N.Y. And the Tijuana cartel, active in at least 20 U.S. cities, is extending its network from San Diego to Seattle and Anchorage.

Many cities showed evidence of multiple cartels, according to the report, which was based on federal, state and local law enforcement reporting.

The extent and depth of cartel activity was not specified, but the Drug Enforcement Administration told Congress two years ago that it believed Mexican-based trafficking organizations "now have command and control over the drug trade and are starting to show the hallmarks of organized crime, such as organizing into distinct cells with subordinate cells that operate throughout the United States."

The Congressional Research Service last year reported that in the U.S. the cartels "maintain some level of coordination and cooperation among their various operating areas, moving labor and materials to the various sites, even across the country as needed."

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