COLUMBIANA, Ala. – Five men dead in an apartment.
In a county that might see five homicides in an entire year, the call over the sheriff's radio revealed little about what awaited law enforcement at a sprawling apartment complex.
A type of crime, and criminal, once foreign to this landscape of blooming dogwoods had arrived in Shelby County. Sheriff Chris Curry felt it even before he laid eyes on the grisly scene. He called the state. The FBI. The DEA. Anyone he could think of.
"I don't know what I've got," he warned them. "But I'm gonna need help."
The five dead men lay scattered about the living room of one apartment in a complex of hundreds.
Some of the men showed signs of torture: Burns seared into their earlobes revealed where modified jumper cables had been clamped as an improvised electrocution device. Adhesive from duct tape used to bind the victims still clung to wrists and faces, from mouths to noses.
As a final touch, throats were slashed open, post-mortem.
It didn't take long for Curry and federal agents to piece together clues: A murder scene, clean save for the crimson-turned-brown stains now spotting the carpet. Just a couple of mattresses tossed on the floor. It was a typical stash house.
But the cut throats? Some sort of ghastly warning.
Curry would soon find this was a retaliation hit over drug money with ties to Mexico's notorious Gulf Cartel.
Curry also found out firsthand what federal drug enforcement agents have long understood. The drug war, with the savagery it brings, knows no bounds. It had landed in his back yard, in the foothills of the Appalachians, in Alabama's wealthiest county, around the corner from The Home Depot.
One thousand, twenty-four miles from the Mexico border.
Forget for a moment the phrase itself — "War on Drugs" — much-derided since President Richard Nixon coined it. Wars eventually end, after all. And many Americans wonder today, nearly four decades later, will this one ever be won?
In Mexico, the fight has become a real war. Some 45,000 Mexican army troops now patrol territories long ruled by narcotraffickers. Places like Tijuana, in the border state of Baja California. Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from Texas. Ciudad Juarez, next door to El Paso. But also the central state of Michoacan and resort cities like Acapulco, an hour south of the place where, months ago, the decapitated bodies of 12 soldiers were discovered with a sign that read:
"For every one of mine that you kill, I will kill 10."
Some 10,560 people have been killed since 2006, the year Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office and launched his campaign against the organized crime gangs that move cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin to a vast U.S. market. Consider that fewer than 4,300 American service members have died in the six-year war in Iraq.
The cartels are fighting each other for power, and the Calderon administration for their very survival. Never before has a Mexican president gone after these narco-networks with such force.
"He has deployed troops. He has deployed national police. He's trying to vet and create units ... that can effectively adjudicate and turn back the years of corruption," says John Walters, who directed the Office of National Drug Control Policy for seven years under President George W. Bush. "These groups got more powerful, and when there was less visible destruction, it was because they were in control; they were stable. Now, he has destabilized them."
Walters sees this as an "opportunity to change — for better, or worse — the history of our two countries fundamentally."
And now the cartels have brought the fight to us: In 230 U.S. cities, the Mexican organizations maintain distribution hubs or supply drugs to local distributors, according to the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center.
Places like Miami and other longtime transportation points along the California, Arizona and Texas borders. But also Twin Falls, Idaho. Billings, Mont. Wichita, Kan. Phoenix. St. Louis. Milwaukee.
Even Shelby County.
The quintuple homicide occurred just outside the Birmingham city limits and a half-hour's drive north of Columbiana, the county seat.
"We became a hub without knowing it," Sheriff Curry says. "We've got to wake people up because we're seeing it all over the place. It is now firmly located throughout this country."
The talk of the day is "spillover" violence — at once the stuff of sensationalism but also a very real concept.
In Phoenix, the nation's fifth-largest city, police report close to 1,000 kidnappings over the past three years tied to border smuggling, be it human or drugs or both. The rise parallels a shift in illegal immigrant crossings from California and Texas to the Arizona border, where many of the same gangs transporting people transport drugs. The perpetrators are often after ransom money, for a drug load lost or from a family that paid to have a relative brought over.
The problem has earned the city the unfortunate distinction of "America's kidnapping capital" in some media accounts, even though the incidents are mostly out of sight and out of mind for law-abiding residents and overall crime, including homicides, was down last year.
In Atlanta, which has grown into a major distribution hub for the Gulf Cartel, trafficker-on-trafficker violence has become more common as the cartels, in the face of Calderon's crackdown, impose tighter payment schedules and grow less tolerant of extending credit, says Rodney Benson, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration there.
Benson blames that, in part, for the much-publicized kidnapping last summer in the middle-class Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, not far from Stone Mountain Park. Acting on a tip, agents found a Dominican man chained to a wall in the basement of a house, severely dehydrated and badly beaten. He had been lured from Rhode Island because he apparently owed $300,000 in drug debts.
"Money wasn't paid," Benson says. "They were going to kill him."
Greg Borland heads the DEA office in Birmingham. Since the murders last August, he's seen the fear in his neighbors' eyes, and faced their questions: How did this happen? Why here? Why now?
"They're absolutely shocked. To me it's like: Why? It's everywhere. Unless you have a 50-foot wall around your town, no one should feel immune from this. The citizen in me says, `I can't believe this is happening in my town.' But the cop in me says, `Well, it's only a matter of time' ... because there are high-level drug traffickers in the area.
"Maybe," he says, "it was only by the grace of God that it hadn't happened already."
Those in the know understand that this kind of violence is nothing new. In border communities that have long been trafficking hubs it's uncommon not to hear of a drug-related crime on the evening news.
What's new is where that violence is erupting, where distribution cells and hubs and sub-hubs have surfaced. How an apartment in Alabama became the site of a drug hit in many ways tells the story of the narco-trade in America in 2009, and of the challenges we face in combatting a blight that has spread to big cities and small all across the land.
Before Aug. 20, 2008, when the five men were found, the assumption had been that the big drug hauls were passing through Shelby County and on to cities with larger markets.
Alabama had long had its share of street dealers. Homegrown pot passed hands. Then powder cocaine and crack. Soon meth labs cropped up here and there. "Just a local issue," says Curry.
"There weren't really any traffickers in our county. But over time it's escalated into a sophisticated transportation structure that moves marijuana, moves powder cocaine and now moves crystal meth."
First came the rise of the Mexican cartel, brought about in the late '80s and early '90s after authorities cracked down on Colombian traffickers and choked off routes along the Caribbean and in South Florida. The Colombians aligned with the Mexicans for transportation, then began paying their Mexican subcontractors in cocaine.
As more Colombian traffickers were brought down, the Mexicans took over both transportation and distribution. A decade ago, 60 percent of the cocaine entering the United States came through Mexico. Today that figure is 90 percent.
Texas and other border states become primary distribution hubs. Greg Bowden, who heads the FBI's violent crime task force in Birmingham, worked four years in the Texas border city of Brownsville. He remembers cases involving Alabama dealers who would fly into Houston, rent a car, pick up loads at a warehouse or mall parking lot and drive back home.
"(Distributors) felt comfortable in Texas. That was their home base, and has been for a long time. Now," says Bowden, "they're comfortable here, in Memphis, in Atlanta. They moved their home bases to these little pockets."
One reason for that shift is the ability these days to "blend in in plain sight," as the Atlanta DEA chief puts it. The flood of Hispanic immigrants into American communities to work construction and plant jobs helped provide cover for traffickers looking to expand into new markets or build hubs in quiet suburbs with fewer law officers than the big cities.
Shelby has long been Alabama's fastest-growing county, with its proximity to Birmingham, good schools and a growing corporate corridor along Highway 280. The number of Hispanics grew 126 percent from 2000 to 2007. It was once rare to see a Latino face at the local Wal-Mart or gas station. Now, dozens upon dozens of Hispanic day laborers line Lorna Road in the northern part of the county.
As Bowden says, "You don't stand out."
But there is another reason this area, and others, have become what some agents call "sub-hubs."
With some 4.9 million trucks crossing into the United States from Mexico every year, tractor-trailers have become a transportation mode of choice among traffickers. Drugs head north, but weapons and cash also head back south — like the $400,000 Border Patrol agents found on April 2 near Las Cruces, N.M., stashed in the refrigeration unit of a semi.
Shelby County is a trucking mecca, with highways 65, 20, 59 and 459 running east to Atlanta, north to Nashville, south to New Orleans, west to Dallas. Once reluctant to haul drug shipments too far beyond a border state, drivers are willing to take more chances now, because there are so many trucks on the road, Bowden says.
Since January, 27 people were sentenced in Alabama federal court in just one case for using tractor-trailers to transport cocaine and marijuana from Mexico across the border to Brownsville, then up through Birmingham on I-65 to northern Alabama for distribution. Investigators seized 77 pounds of cocaine during the investigation — more than the DEA seized in the entire state of Alabama in all of 1999. The scheme, according to an indictment, had operated since 2004.
Amid all of this, an operation moved into Shelby County, leading to the call on Aug. 20.
A simple welfare check brought deputies to the Cahaba Lakes Apartments off Highway 280, down the road from upscale Vestavia Hills, whose motto is "A Better Place to Live."
The victims were Hispanic, all illegal immigrants. Interviews with family members and associates helped investigators piece together a sketchy portrait of what happened.
Agents described it as friendly competition turned deadly among a group of distributors from Atlanta and Birmingham that often sold and shared drug loads when one or the other group was running low. At some point, about a half-million in drug money went missing. One group suspected the other of taking it, and went after the five men at Cahaba Lakes.
The money was never found.
Whether an order came directly from Mexico, or the decision was made down the food chain, investigators don't know.
The DEA's Borland notes that making a direct connection between the street level distributors charged in the killing and a specific cartel boss back in Mexico isn't easy in a business with so many players at various levels.
"We don't have canceled checks of their dues payments to the cartels. But we know that they were moving large quantities of drugs, which are probably brought in here under the supervision of the Gulf Cartel, because the Gulf Cartel is the dominant one here," he says.
"That money was supposed to be moving ... and it disappeared. So the attempt was to locate where was the money and who took it?" Curry says. "It was a contract hit, ordered to be carried out and paid for."
Since then, Curry has pushed aside concerns about resources and assigned one deputy to a DEA task force, another to work with the FBI. At the behest of the Department of Homeland Security, he joined in a conference call with police chiefs and sheriffs in border states to discuss what he now calls "a common problem."
And he answers, as candidly as possible, his citizens' questions when they ask him about this "new" threat.
"People want to have a comfort zone, and if they have to confront the realities of how rough life really is, that doesn't sit well," he says. "It scares them. And they don't want to be scared. South of our border: gunfights, violence — it is a normal, accepted, expected behavior. That has now moved into our borders."
Ask just about any DEA agent or expert who keeps a close watch on drug trafficking, and they'll cringe at the use of the word "war." They'll tell you, flat out, that no, it's not likely ever to be won. Just as there will always be robberies and rapes and homicides, there will always be narcotrafficking.
So they take their victories where they can. And there have been victories.
Heads of cartels have been toppled. Juan Garcia Abrego, former chief of the Gulf Cartel and once on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, is serving 11 life terms in a Colorado federal prison after his 1996 arrest in Mexico and extradition to the United States. His successor, Osiel Cardenas, awaits trial in Houston after his 2007 extradition from Mexico.
These handovers have become almost routine under Calderon, who reversed long-standing practice and allowed more Mexicans to be tried in the United States. Last year, he extradited a record 95 wanted criminals, including several high-ranking members of the Tijuana-based Arrellano-Felix cartel.
In February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the arrest of more than 750 people as part of "Operation Xcellerator," which targeted Mexico's most powerful drug organization, the Sinaloa Cartel. Another 175 were arrested last fall as part of "Project Reckoning," an investigation into the Gulf Cartel.
President Barack Obama has promised to dispatch hundreds of additional agents to the border, along with more gear and drug-sniffing dogs. "If the steps that we've taken do not get the job done," he said, "then we will do more."
"More" may well come in the form of more direct aid to Mexico. In her first visit to Mexico as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton said the White House would seek $80 million to help Mexico buy Blackhawk helicopters. That's on top of a $1.3 billion Bush-era initiative providing drug-fighting aircraft and equipment to Mexico over the next three years.
But the answer to this problem is as complex as the problem itself. Enforcement, money and equipment alone aren't enough. In Mexico, the challenges run deep as corruption has infected almost every level of government. Here, the true remedy is just as daunting: Curbing the appetite that fuels all of this.
"We are still throwing the cops at a problem that is well beyond that," says George Friedman, who heads the global intelligence firm Stratfor. "It is a major geopolitical problem. We've been moving into a situation where the Mexican government is no longer the most powerful force in Mexico.
"It's a mess, not a war," says Friedman.
Many months after the Shelby County case, the Alabama sheriff still grapples with the ugly reality of what the mess means for him and his community.
He had his own victory, of sorts. Arrests were swift, and six suspects now are held without bond in the Shelby County Jail charged with capital murder. One owned a tire shop, another was a barber — more evidence to authorities of how bad guys can blend in.
Still, it is a victory without call for celebration, because Curry wonders when and where it will happen again.
"This is not an isolated incident. It is a standard business practice with this group of people, and it is simply going to be repeated," he says. "I can't predict whether it's going to be repeated here or not, but it's going to be repeated in communities throughout the United States whenever these disagreements occur."