Big Mexican drug ring hit by Atlanta-area busts

Federal and local law enforcement agents have arrested 45 people and seized cash, guns and more than two tons of drugs as part of an investigation into the Atlanta-area U.S. distribution hub of a major Mexican drug cartel, authorities said Thursday.

Operation Choke Hold began in May 2009 and targeted the Atlanta-area operations of La Familia Michoacana, authorities said at a news conference at a suburban Atlanta courthouse. Known as La Familia, it is one of Mexico's largest and most brutal cartels.

"It has been widely reported that the Atlanta metropolitan area has become a major distribution center for drug cartels based in Mexico," said Jack Killorin, director of the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. "Let today also document that law enforcement working together is successful in disrupting their operations."

Authorities seized 4,120 pounds of marijuana, 46 pounds of methamphetamine, 43 kilograms of cocaine, 20 guns, six vehicles and about $2.3 million in cash during the investigation. The drugs seized have a street value of more than $10 million, Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Lawson said.

The operation dealt a major blow to La Familia's operations in Atlanta, Killorin said.

"This here is a mountain of drugs and a lot of cash and guns. For the cartels, all of that is replaceable," he said. "What's not replaceable is the trusted associates, many of whom we arrested during this operation."

Investigators say the La Familia cell based in Atlanta imports cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. The network distributes significant amounts of the drugs to Florida, Alabama, Indiana, Illinois and North Carolina.

Suburban Gwinnett County has become a major distribution hub for multiple Mexican cartels to move their drugs throughout the eastern U.S. This investigation began in Gwinnett but quickly extended to other suburban counties, where a majority of the arrests were made.

That signals that traffickers are spreading to other parts of the metro area, in part because of a law enforcement crackdown in Gwinnett, Killorin said.

"This is not the end of anything," Killorin said. "But there are signs that the continued pressure is having an effect out there."

This operation was part of an ongoing effort by the U.S. Drug Enforcement agency and the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force to work with local officials to make arrests and prosecute traffickers.

The dozens of people arrested face various drug, trafficking, conspiracy, money laundering and weapons charges.