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Video: ‘War next door’ is closer than you think

  1. Transcript of: ‘War next door’ is closer than you think

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: his continuing series of reports about THE WAR NEXT DOOR , NBC 's Mark Potter has the story of an American city that finds itself under siege as a crossroads in this bloody drug trade .

    MARK POTTER reporting: A few weeks ago when Mexican authorities arrested "La Barbie," the reputed drug kingpin feared for his viciousness, right away officials in Atlanta said they wanted the first crack at putting him on trial because Atlanta is where La Barbie is already charged with distributing tons of cocaine.

    Mr. DANNY PORTER (Gwinnett County District Attorney): It's possible that there are more drugs that have come through Gwinnett County and Atlanta than ever came through Miami during the -- during the '80s, during the time of the " Miami Vice " idea.

    POTTER: Drug agents say Mexican cartels, which are fighting a brutal war south of the border , have now penetrated 270 US cities . But it is Atlanta that is their major smuggling hub, with hundreds of Mexican traffickers operating there. In this neighborhood near Atlanta with its well-kept homes and quiet streets, US drug agents make a shocking discovery. In a basement, a kidnapped drug dealer chained and beaten by members of a Mexican drug cartel .

    Mr. RODNEY BENSON (Atlanta DEA Special Agent in Charge): Look around. Quiet, tree-lined street, you know, hardworking people here going to work every day, raising families, and next door you have members of the Gulf Cartel torturing somebody for not paying on a drug shipment.

    POTTER: Hardest hit is Gwinnett County , northeast of Atlanta . Because of its large Hispanic population, authorities say, Mexican traffickers easily blend in. The reason the Mexican traffickers are so attracted to the Atlanta area is the same reason many legitimate corporations are here. The web of interstate highways going in and out makes Atlanta the Southeast 's most important transportation hub . Mexicans smuggling drugs across the US border truck their loads to Atlanta for repackaging before driving them north to cities along the Eastern Seaboard .

    Mr. BENSON: We'll see that load of drugs in a tractor trailer arrive at the truck stop, be escorted typically to a warehouse. As you can see, there's a sea of warehouses out there.

    POTTER: Authorities first realized they had a big problem nine years ago when a George state patrol car was rammed by Mexican smugglers guarding a drug shipment. In this Gwinnett County home, agents found a huge Mexican methamphetamine lab. And down this dirt road, hidden from the street, they found another house with millions of dollars in Mexican drug cash. But it's the soaring amount of Mexican heroin and other drugs flooding the streets that has Mary Rieser , director of Georgia 's Narconon Treatment Center , fearing what she calls death by injection.

    Ms. MARY RIESER: There's a syringe instead of a gun, but people are definitely dying at this end of the war on drugs or the Mexican cartel.

    POTTER: Mexican traffickers now firmly entrenched across America among unsuspecting neighbors.

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/13/2010 5:30:57 PM ET 2010-12-13T22:30:57

For most Americans it is likely hard to understand the level of brutality consuming many regions in Mexico now as vicious drug-trafficking cartels fight with each other and the authorities over smuggling routes to the United States and distribution rights in Mexican neighborhoods. The bulk of this murderous conflict occurs just south of the 2,000-mile-long U.S. border, so close-by that bullets from gunfire in Mexico have struck buildings on the American side of the fence.

In the nearly four years since Mexican President Felipe Calderon, firmly supported by the U.S. government, launched an unprecedented attack on Mexico's drug kingpins, nearly 30,000 people have been killed. The victims include thousands of police officers, soldiers, public officials, judges and journalists, as the traffickers fight back with powerful weapons, many of them purchased in the United States. Often Mexican police find themselves outmanned and outgunned by the criminals. 

Terrified Mexican officials have fled across the border seeking political asylum and some Mexican villages have become ghost towns after traffickers killed or pushed out the residents to clear the way for their smuggling operations.

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The Mexican trafficking organizations have also crossed deeply into the United States, peddling tons of marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine to American drug users, who reward the cartels with an estimated 19 to 39 billion dollars a year, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  Federal authorities say Mexican traffickers are now entrenched in at least 270 American cities, running sophisticated and disciplined networks that not only bring the drugs in, but also ship truckloads of cash back to Mexico.

"Mexico and its government are looking at transnational drug trafficking as a national security threat.  We, too, have to look at it seriously in our country," said David Gaddis, the DEA's chief for global enforcement operations. "It is our country's number one organized crime threat."

Making al-Qaida ‘look tame’
A distinguishing feature of the Mexican drug war is the unspeakable violence played out daily on the streets and posted in graphic detail by newspapers and media websites. Large-scale gun battles, mass executions, corpses strewn in public, beheadings, torture and grenade attacks have become commonplace.  As of this writing, at least a dozen Mexican mayors have been killed in 2010 alone. A gubernatorial candidate was shot dead on a highway. After a Mexican marine was killed during a raid against a drug kingpin, gunmen massacred the young man's family after his funeral.

"I think they make al-Qaida look tame in terms of what they do. I can't explain how someone loses their humanity and resorts to these things," said Anthony Coulson, a recently retired DEA supervisor. Coulson ran the DEA's Tucson District Office, overseeing 255 miles of border between the U.S. and Mexico.  He argued that the violence, and the amounts of illicit drugs flowing from Mexico into the United States, has never been higher and that the traffickers have never been more powerful or in control of more territory than they are now.

"It's getting worse. I've never seen it at this level before," said Coulson.

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Of particular concern is Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's fourth largest city with a population of 1.3 million people sitting right across the border from El Paso, Texas.  Two major drug cartels and local gangs have been engaged in a vicious battle there over turf and smuggling routes. Last year alone, 2,800 people were killed there and the death toll this year could be higher.  In two separate incidents within one week this October, gunmen stormed private parties in Juarez homes and opened fire.

In the first massacre, nine were killed. In the second, thirteen — ranging in age from 16 to 25 years old — died when gunmen stormed a birthday party and started shooting. The attackers escaped, but authorities suspect the rampage is somehow connected to the ongoing turf war over drugs. Several other mass killings have occurred in drug rehabilitation facilities.

Adding to the terror in Juarez, a remote-controlled car bomb aimed at police was detonated in the downtown area, killing three people and raising concerns over a heightened level of violence. To lure police to the scene, the bombers shot a man, dressed him in a police uniform, laid him on a street corner and then made an emergency call reporting an officer down.  When responders arrived, the bomb hidden in a brief case exploded.

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A two-nation threat
Political and law enforcement leaders in both countries agree that American drug users fuel the Mexican trafficking cartels by purchasing their illicit products.  They insist that demand reduction is an important component for calming the violence. There also are arguments about whether drug legalization would help, although the predominant view is both countries is that such measures are unlikely to be implemented on a national scale.

Another debate is over who is over who is actually winning the fight between the Mexican government and the drug traffickers.

"I don't think it's a winnable war," said Tony Payan, a drug cartel expert who teaches at the University of Texas at El Paso.  "The reason I don't think it's winnable is that the United States is not addressing the consumption part.  It's not doing its part to reduce the market itself."

David Gaddis, of the DEA, agrees than demand reduction is crucial, but he also points to recent arrests of major traffickers, large drug seizures and increase cooperation and intelligence sharing between Mexican and U.S. authorities.  He argued that the extreme violence is the result of traffickers being threatened and cut off from their normal smuggling activities by the Mexican police and military.

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"I see it as very positive, despite the violence that's ongoing throughout Mexico," Gaddis said.

"Desperation results in desperate acts, such as the brutality and the massacres that are ongoing.  So we would expect to see continued violence for some time.  But at some point, it will yield."

Others fear that Mexico is now in a long-term spiral toward more bloodshed as the brazen traffickers lash out and fight for control.  Mexico's next presidential election in 2012, they say, is critical, because it will determine whether the current level of pressure on the cartels will continue past President Calderon's administration.

Jose Reyes Ferriz, who just completed a term as mayor of Juarez, insists the United States must fully understand that the current drug war deeply affects both sides of the border and should do more to help.  "The same gangs that are in Mexico are the same gangs that distribute drugs in the United States," he said.  "It is a joint problem, and (solving) the problems of Mexico prevents the problem from jumping to the United States."

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Mexico violence

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  1. Doctors and nurses of the Medical Specialties Hospital hold a candlelight protest against violence in Mexico's Ciudad on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010. Last Dec. 2, Dr. Alberto Betancourt Rosales, a trauma and orthopedic specialist from this hospital, was kidnapped and his body was found two days later. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An investigative police officer stands by a vehicle that was allegedly abandoned by assailants suspected of shooting two of their fellow officers in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Dec. 6. One investigative police officer died in the shooting, according to police. (Dario Lopez-Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The bodies of three men lie together after being placed in the back of a funeral home's pick-up truck after they were killed by unidentified gunmen in the Pacific resort city of Acapulco, Mexico, Dec. 5. At least 11 men were killed during the first weekend in December in drug cartel violence, authorities say. (Bernandino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A soldier escorts Edgar Jimenez Lugo alias "El Ponchis" as he is presented to the media in Cuernavaca, Dec. 3. Soldiers arrested the 14-year-old suspected drug gang hitman in central Mexico late Dec. 2 as he attempted to travel to the United States. Jimenez, a U.S. citizen, is believed to work for the South Pacific cartel in Morelos state, outside Mexico City and is allegedly part of a gang of teenagers committing brutal murders to eliminate rivals. (Margarito Perez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Members of a forensic team work in a mass grave Nov. 29 in Palomas in Chihuahua state, just across from the Big Bend National Park in Texas. Troops, acting on information obtained from several captured drug hitmen, dug out 18 bodies from 11 graves, police say. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexican federal police escort Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, 32, the alleged leader of the Aztecas cross-border drug gang, Nov. 28. The gang is suspected in dozens of killings, with Gallegos linked to last January's killing of 15 youths at a Ciudad Juarez party and in the March murder of a U.S. consulate employee in that city, regional security chief Luis Cardenas Palomino said. (Marco Ugarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Mexican soldier crouches inside a tunnel found under the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Nov. 26. U.S. border agents said they had found a half-mile-long tunnel under the border and seized a significant amount of marijuana at the San Diego area warehouse where it ended. That tunnel, which measured 1,800 feet and was equipped with a rail system, lighting and ventilation, yielded some 30 tons of marijuana, one of the largest such seizures on the border in recent years. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A forensic worker places stickers reading "Impact" around bullet holes on a car window at a crime scene in Guadalajara, Nov. 22. According to local media, three men riding in the car were shot by unknown assailants. (Alejandro Acosta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Christians pray for peace at the Macroplaza in downtown Monterrey on Nov. 13. More than 30,000 people have been killed across Mexico in drug-related violence since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his military-led crackdown against the cartels. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Galia Rodriguez, 8, daughter of reporter Armando Rodriguez who was killed in Ciudad Juarez, takes part in an anniversary in the journalists's park in the border city on Nov. 13. Two years earlier, suspected drug gangs fatally shot Rodriguez, a Mexican crime reporter who worked for El Diario de Ciudad Juarez. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks by a banner hung by suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang at a pedestrian bridge in Monterrey, Nov. 6. Suspected hitmen from the Zetas gang hung messages between trees and over bridges in Reynosa and in cities across northeastern Tamaulipas state, celebrating the death of rival Gulf Cartel gang leader Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas, who was shot dead by marines a day earlier. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A forensic investigator looks in a car where bodyguard Carlos Reyes Almageur lies dead on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico, Nov. 4. Carlos Reyes Almageur, a body guard for Mauricio Fernandez, mayor of the municipality of San Pedro Garza Garcia, was shot to death by unidentified assailants, according to police at the scene. (Carlos Jasso / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Family members and friends mourn during the Oct. 25 funeral of a victim killed at a family birthday party, in Ciudad Juarez. Families mourned the victims of the massacre, one of Mexico's worst shootings, as Ciudad Juarez residents expressed outrage at the surging violence. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. People clean a blood-stained patio at a home in Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 23. At least 13 young people were shot dead and 15 wounded in an attack on this house during a 15-year-old boy's birthday party. (Raymundo Ruiz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Morgue workers place a coffin containing an unidentified body into a grave at the San Rafael cemetery on the outskirts of the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 22. The bodies of 21 men and four women, killed in drug-related incidents, were buried after being held in the city morgue for several months without being claimed by relatives. (Gael Gonzalez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Seized weapons are shown to the press in Mexico City on Oct. 22. The arsenal, allegedly seized from the Zetas drug cartel and found hidden in a horse trailer, included high-power rifles, grenades and ammunition. Two people were arrested in connection with the seizure. (Miguel Tovar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Soldiers unload 134 tons of marijuana to be incinerated at the military base Morelos in Tijuana, Oct. 20. Soldiers seized the drug earlier that week in Mexico's biggest-ever pot haul, the army said. Heavily armed soldiers raided a series of homes in a poor suburb of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, Calif., and came under fire at least once as they took the drugs and arrested 11 suspected traffickers. (Jorge Duenes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. People gather around a peace dove made out of candles in the patio of the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon during a protest against violence and in memory of slain university student Lucila Quintanilla in Monterrey, Oct. 15. Once an oasis of calm, Mexico's richest city has become a central battleground in the country's increasingly bloody drug war as cartels open fire on city streets and throw grenades onto busy highways. (Edgar Montelongo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A forensic expert looks at a bag containing a human head with a written message on it outside the newspaper Frontera in Tijuana, Mexico, Oct. 12. (Alejandro Cossio / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mexican police agents look at a man's corpse on a street of Ciudad Juarez, Oct. 4. Since the Mexican government declared war on the drug cartels in late 2006, violence has claimed nearly 30,000 lives. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The blindfolded and hand-tied bodies of 72 people thought to be migrant workers lie at a ranch where they were discovered by Mexican marines in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, Aug. 26. The marines came across the bodies after a series of firefights with drug gang members. (Tamaulipas' State Attorney General's Office via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Residents attend a downtown public funeral service for Edelmiro Cavazos, mayor of the tourist town of Santiago, some 18.6 miles away from Monterrey, Aug. 19. Drug hitmen have killed at least 17 mayors across Mexico since early 2008, according to media tallies. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A gold-plated, engraved and diamond-inlaid handgun is on on display at the Museum of Drugs in Mexico City, Aug. 18. Gold-encrusted weapons, children clothes decorated with LSD-laced stickers and religious paintings packed with cocaine offer a glimpse into Mexico's growing drug culture in this unique museum. (Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The grandmother of police officer Jose Ramirez grieves over his body after he was killed by unidentified gunmen while on patrol in Las Joyas neighborhood in Acapulco, Mexico, July 17. Ramirez's grandmother did not give her name, citing security. Three other officers in the vehicle were also killed in the attack. (Bernardino Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tape used to cordon off a crime scene lies surrounded by blood in Ciudad Juarez, Jan 31. Suspected drug hitmen burst into a party and killed 13 people, most of them teenagers, in one of the world's deadliest cities. (Alejandro Bringas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Police officers investigate the scene of a car bomb attack on a main avenue in downtown Ciudad Juarez, July 16. An armed commando set off a car bomb near three police patrol vehicles patrolling the border town, killing two police officers and wounding 12 others. Another grenade exploded when paramedics and journalists arrived, leaving three medical assistants seriously injured and a cameraman with minor injuries. (Jesus Alcazar / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Dario Lopez-Mills / AP
    Above: Slideshow (26) Mexico violence
  2. BLOODSHED IN JUAREZ
    Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images
    Slideshow (15) Mexico under siege

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