A tractor-trailer loaded with more than half a ton of marijuana left McAllen, Texas, on Feb. 17, and three days later arrived at a warehouse in an undisclosed part of Athens, according to an affidavit signed Monday by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.
At the warehouse, several men transferred 1,227 pounds of pot from the truck and packed it into a U-Haul cargo van, the affidavit states.
They didn't know that the tractor-trailer driver was working for ICE agents, who watched every step of the way.
A Georgia State Patrol trooper followed the cargo van from the warehouse, but the driver started to flee and the van crashed on Interstate 20, where the occupants ran and left behind the marijuana, the ICE agent's affidavit states.
The affidavit was used to charge an El Paso nightclub owner, Jesus Daniel Guerrero, with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
ICE called Mr. Guerrero a key player in an international drug-trafficking operation that has shipped loads of marijuana from El Paso to cities across the nation, using Atlanta as a primary stop.
Atlanta is a major narcotics distribution hub because Interstate 20 connects with Interstate 85, which makes its way to Interstate 95 which passes through major cities along the East Coast, according to John Comer, associate special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Atlanta field division.
"Obviously, Atlanta is situated where it serves the major end points on the East Coast, like New York, D.C., and Baltimore," he said.
Drug traffickers are "opportunists" who will branch out to neighboring counties, like Athens-Clarke, when it suits their needs, according Agent Comer.
"Athens is close enough to Atlanta
where (cartels) will feel comfortable doing business in Athens," the DEA agent said. "If there is a warehouse available in Athens, they will use it."
Agent Comer didn't know about ICE's investigation that led from Texas to Athens. Neither did members of the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force, according to its supervisor, Athens-Clarke police Lt. Mike Hunsinger.
But local officials have seen drug-trafficking organizations reach into Athens.
Last June, drug task force members teamed up with ICE agents to raid a home on North Bluff Road, where they arrested five suspected Mexican gang members and seized drugs and forged identity documents.
Lt. Hunsinger would not say how much drugs were seized, but officers found enough methamphetamine to make a federal trafficking case, he said.
Police arrested three suspected Mexican drug traffickers a year earlier, in November 2007, after authorities intercepted 22 pounds of marijuana destined for a vacant house in West Athens where the suspects were waiting.
Investigators searched the house on Sunset Drive and found evidence that led them to 20 more pounds of pot at another vacant home nearby, police said.
The fact that the men used vacant houses to receive drug shipments and the pot came from out of state indicated the men belonged to a Mexican drug trafficking organization, Lt. Hunsinger said