Updated:ATLANTA,None — Drug Enforcement Agency officials said Gwinnett County is the drug hub for several major Mexican cartels. They said Atlanta's highway system is a shipping link for drugs from Mexico to the north.
Channel 2 Action News anchor Justin Farmer recently traveled to the southwest border where he was shown hidden camera video. It showed armed drug smugglers in the desert just outside of Phoenix.
"We've never seen activity this close to a major metropolitan area," said Chris Simcox. He founded the citizens group, the Minutemen, which used to patrol the border.
"This is 150 miles north of the border where you are seeing people carrying automatic weapons, escorting drugs and people into the country," said Simcox.
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The Minutemen disbanded recently because members said the Mexican drug cartels made the border too dangerous. Former members of the group told Farmer they are setting up hidden cameras to catch drug and people smugglers. They're posting the video on a website.
"This is an army that works on our territory and is not going to stand by and let Homeland Security...address them. We need the National Guard. We need the Marines to stop this from happening," Simcox said.
Farmer rode with border agents near Douglas, Ariz. They showed him an area where smugglers often cross because the patrol doesn't have cameras there. They also showed him where smugglers cut steel fences repeatedly to get vehicles through. Agents said they drive north to Tuscon or Phoenix, then move east to major cartel hubs like Atlanta.
"The vast majority of marijuana that is available in the United States has crossed the southern border at some point," said Cochise County, Arizona attorney Edward Rheinheimer.
Law enforcement in Arizona told Channel 2 Action News that in the past, smugglers caught with less than 500 pounds weren't prosecuted. They said it's because they didn't have enough staff to deal with what they called small loads.
Mexican citizens who were caught with drugs were sent back to Mexico. The policy frustrated local prosecutors who said it gave the message it's OK to smuggle under 500 pounds.
"The 100 pound load of marijuana that comes across the border ends up in a middle school in Atlanta, Georgia," said Rheinheimer.
Federal authorities said they changed the rule a few months ago. They said now they're not only concerned about drugs, but violence from drug cartels. Records show 23,000 people have died in violent cartel incidents in the past two years.
"The number one employer right now in Mexico are the cartels. You either work for them or you die," Simcox said.
In the past two years, Channel 2 Action News has covered stories of alleged cartels operating in the metro Atlanta area. Gwinnett County police officials said several recent drug-related kidnappings and murders have ties to the Mexican cartel.
A former Arizona congressman warned Farmer it may only get worse.
"Now it's coming across the border and moving east to you guys in Atlanta," said J.D. Hayworth. "Coming with it is the kind of violence that was depicted years ago in (the movie) Scarface."