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The endless war: How drugs come into WNC and what, if anything, can be done about it

An agent handles illegal drugs. An agent handles illegal drugs. Shutterstock photo

 as 4,041 people in North Carolina lost their lives. This is the highest number of overdose deaths in a single year on record in the state. In 2021, more than 77% of overdose deaths in the state likely involved the synthetic drug fentanyl, which is more powerful than any other commonly used opioid.

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The origin

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Part of Nabarun Dasgupta's job is to see what other substances might be present in certain drugs. Donated photo


Fronteras del norte

adio, former Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske said drugs are moved north across the Mexican border, at which point a mule will “immediately transfer the drugs to another individual.” While the border has been much publicized and politicized due to increasing detentions of undocumented immigrants, “well over 90%” of drugs come through legal ports of entry, Kerlikowske said.

Robert Murphy has been with the DEA since 1997 and now serves as the special agent in charge of the Atlanta Regional Office, which covers Georgia and the Carolinas. Murphy agreed that most drugs are trafficked into the United States through legal ports of entry. Most commonly, they are hidden within shipments of legitimate goods.


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A HAZMAT cleanup crew prepares to remove liquid meth from inside the tractor trailer. DEA photo

Welcome to Atlanta

 in Mexico but tend to maintain the peace in Atlanta and sometimes even work together when an arrangement proves to be mutually beneficial.

news drugs atlanta

Atlanta has become the drug trafficking hub for the entire Eastern United States. Shutterstock image

Conversion factors

 with 800 pounds of liquid-foam meth that hadn’t yet been cooked.

, a sparsely populated area about an hour south of the North Carolina border. That region’s rolling hills accommodate larger pastures than the rugged mountains of Western North Carolina, which makes for the perfect spot to cook meth undetected. The Franklin County operation, housed in an outbuilding on a 100-acre farm owned by an Atlanta-area man, was large. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the 255 gallons of liquid meth found there could produce up to 700 kilograms of crystal with a potential street value of $7.8 million.

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A propane heating element and cookware found at a conversion lab. DEA photo

Gateway to the Smokies

 ,” charges were brought against 77 Ghost Face Gangsters, including three of the pillars. Gov. Brian Kemp spoke at a news conference following the announcements.

 as well as conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, maiming and attempted murder.

Operation JAWBreaker

, Assistant District Attorney Jason Arnold said the prosecutions brought Operation JAWBreaker to a “successful conclusion.”

“It is the culmination of a long investigation that led to the 2018 arrests of 13 individuals,“ he said. “Along with our law enforcement partners, we are focused on protecting our community from the selling and using of dangerous drugs, sometimes with fatal consequences. This operation highlights effective partnerships in targeting people who have engaged in illegal behavior.”   

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Drugs often enter Western North Carolina on U.S. 441 through Macon County. Bob Scott photo

 at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn when the cocaine they used was laced with fentanyl. Only a few days ago, The Boulder, Colorado, Police Department  that there had been several overdoses in one day, leading them to believe someone had put out a bad batch.

 called attention to that very trend and quoted lawmakers and activists who were concerned that people who may not otherwise use drugs could be brought into the market — especially children.

The land of the sky

 after being arrested in April 2019. Investigators employed numerous tactics to zero in on Allison and his coconspirators, including interviews with cooperating witnesses, controlled drug buys and searches of personal electronic devices.

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A tote full of crystal meth that's ready to ship out found at a conversion lab. DEA photo

A memo from Allison’s defense attorney concedes that Allison sold some meth but argued he wasn’t the “kingpin” the U.S. Attorney’s office was making him out to be. Allison is related to several members of a known Atlanta criminal organization, who according to court documents, run some of their enterprise out of their night club in Atlanta where multiple people have been shot in recent years, including 51-year-old Melvin Allison, who was killed there in 2016.

 of 2021 as an example.

Drugs up, money down

, one woman said that when she was using, she’d pay $40 to $60 for a gram of meth. Sometimes, she would shoplift from Walmart and return items for gift cards and other times dealers would request specific items for her to steal.

, Jorge Luis Perez distributed meth, heroin and fentanyl in Jackson and Swain counties. Authorities learned of Perez’s trafficking through a larger investigation into regional networks.

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A shrine to Santa Muerte found inside an Atlanta area conversion lab. Santa Muerte has been adopted by traffickers as a sort of folk patron saint. DEA photo

, Chinese “money brokers” are one of the most worrisome threats. Money brokers can move large sums of currency “quickly and quietly” from the United States to China and then to Mexico with “a few clicks of a burner phone and Chinese banking apps.”

Next, the money goes from China to Mexico. The same mirroring technique is often employed on that end to get the money into the hands of a launderer’s client.

, DEA Special Agent Michael “Vince” Kersey with the El Paso Intelligence Center said the use of Bitcoin by drug trafficking organizations has increased “big time.” But he also said that even with the advent of cryptocurrency, COVID presented a unique challenge for those organizations looking to launder bulk cash since businesses they moved money through were shut down along with the rest of the country.

Necessary tedium

, several sources SMN spoke with said only about 10% of vehicles are screened, and the time to inspect them is limited.

Sharing is caring

“We have our intel centers that coordinate all the information coming in and coming out,” he said. “We’re kind of a non-compete entity. We coordinate meetings and intel briefings regularly to share information.”

Fighting the endless war

. “And putting criminals who distribute fentanyl behind bars will help to disrupt the supply of fentanyl and send a clear message that this kind of behavior will be unacceptable.”

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People suffering through addiction are often unhoused and find shelter wherever they can, like this abandoned cabin in Macon County. Bob Scott photo

 from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

 similar to the Reuters story on money laundering used the narrative of Chinese American gangster Xizhi Li to describe how criminal organizations use techniques like mirroring to launder money.

 ” of drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere, adding that the Chinese government is “at least tacitly supporting” those operations. In an interview for the ProPublica story, Faller, now retired, said China has “the world’s largest and most sophisticated state security apparatus. So there’s no doubt that they have the ability to stop things if they want to.”

Defending the endless war

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It's hard to say what the solution for the drug epidemic looks like, but it's clear that the way things are done now isn't working, and the community continues to reflect the growing crisis. Bob Scott photo

But some questions remain — is victory possible, and what would that even look like? If it isn’t possible, is there even a plan for withdrawal? When one trafficker or dealer gets arrested, someone else is ready to step up and embrace the opportunity to make money moving illegal substances. As long as the demand is constant, people will be there to provide the supply. In her book, “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America,” Beth Macy opined that “You whack one [dealer], and the others just pop right up, like Whac-A-Mole.”

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