By Mary Lou Pickel
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Monday, September 29, 2008
Residents didn't pay much attention to the spacious, rented two-story gray home with the decorative stone facade on Hamilton Road, south of Lawrenceville. They did notice a curious increase in traffic on the quiet residential street.
Little did the neighbors or the landlord know that the house practically bulged with millions of dollars in drug money.
On Sept. 16, folks learned that the house was home to an alleged local leader of one of Mexico's most notorious drug gangs, the brutal Gulf cartel, known for kidnappings, torture, murder and beheadings in Mexico.
Twenty-year-old Edgar Rodriguez-Alejandro, who worked from 3241 Hamilton Road, was indicted by federal prosecutors on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana and money laundering.
Rodriguez-Alejandro coordinated the drugs' movement in the United States and returned the proceeds to Mexico, according to David Nahmias, U.S. Attorney General for the Northern District of Georgia.
Rodriguez-Alejandro was first arrested in May when Gwinnett police responded to a report of kidnapping at a house next door to where he lived on Hamilton Road. When police arrived, people fled to Rodriguez-Alejandro's house and police followed. There they found $7.65 million in cash and 12 kilos of cocaine, according to the federal indictment and a local arrest warrant.
Last week federal officials called Rodriguez-Alejandro a local drug cartel leader. He was already in Gwinnett County jail as a result of the May arrest.
It has set the neighborhood talking.
"The neighbors say they wished they'd known that money was there," said Evelyn Gilbert, 74, who's lived on the street 30 years. "We'd have formed a posse and went down and got it," she said.
Gerald Aboussleman, who lives a few doors down, said the neighborhood has many longtime residents. "We watch out for each other on this road here," he said.
Chris Thompson, who grew up in the neighborhood and whose family rented two homes to the drug trafficking suspects, was as surprised as anyone.
There were families living in the houses, Thompson said. "There's no telling how many kids were there," he said.
Rodriguez-Alejandro and his group lived in Thompson's sister's house under a sublet without her knowledge, Thompson said.
Chris Thompson said his family felt a mixture of embarrassment and frustration in having rented to a suspected drug cartel leader.
Rodriguez-Alejandro's drug cartel cell comprised 22 people, including six from Lawrenceville, two from Sugar Hill, two from Norcross, and 12 from Texas and Mexico, according to the indictment. Another cell coordinated transportation.
"What we impacted here were the highest representatives of the Gulf cartel in Atlanta," said Rodney Benson, special agent in charge of the Atlanta office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Millions of dollars generated by the Atlanta drug dealers were shipped to Texas and then Mexico via tractor trailer, according to Nahmias. "These are enormous piles of cash, usually vacuum-packed," he said. "It's a very sophisticated money-moving operation."
Agents swept through Gwinnett and Jackson counties two weeks ago and arrested 43 more suspected members of the cartel. The sweeps were part of a larger effort in which federal agents netted 175 cartel members nationwide.
Federal drug enforcement agents say Gwinnett County is a hub of activity for Mexico's Gulf cartel because of the easy access to the interstate and a large Hispanic population where the traffickers can fit in.
Most of those arrested on Hamilton Road listed their occupation as "construction worker" on their jail intake form.
"There's a lot going on, and unfortunately, we're right in the middle of it," said Gwinnett County Assistant District Attorney Keith Miles.
Rodriguez-Alejandro is a U.S. citizen born in Mexico, according to the DEA.
On his application for a court-appointed lawyer in Gwinnett County, he indicated that he is married and wrote in Spanish that he worked as a "self-employed businessman."
Rodriguez-Alejandro made an initial appearance before a federal judge Sept. 18 and will enter a plea in coming weeks. Others in custody will make their initial appearances and pleas in coming weeks, said Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. All are expected to plead not guilty, Crosby said.
Last week's sweep in Gwinnett has given the public a view of "what's underneath the water," Miles said.
"I hope it's gotten their attention."