Exclusive: Mexican Drug Cartels in Atlanta

A nondescript house outside of Atlanta is part of America's greatest organized crime threat. CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann reports Drug Enforcement Administration agents say Mexican drug cartels are hiding in plain sight throughout the metro area.

From a closet inside the house, cops seize a shopping bag with a $250,000 in cash. Also seized: six pounds of methamphetamine, with a street value of another quarter-million dollars.

Four rival Mexican drug cartels have dug in along Atlanta's interlocking highways, a shipping link to the rest of America.

"I classify Atlanta as a strategic operations center for Mexican organized crime," said Rodney G. Benson, Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta DEA. "They were able to blend right in and establish metro Atlanta as that strategic trans-shipment point."

DEA Web site

For the last seven months, CBS News has followed Steve Whipple, a DEA field supervisor.

Tailing a suspect named Gilberto Alcaraz, he says Alcaraz represents, "a mid-level distributor."

For Alcaraz, it's a family business. CBS News footage shows his 13-year-old son settling a drug debt with a woman.

Gilberto's house is low-key considering that Whipple says he earns $50,000 a week.

Whipple said, "They're going to drive the beat-up pickup, and they're going to try to look like they're running a landscaping business."

Mexico's drug cartels are now the main suppliers in at least 230 U.S. cities, and dominate 70 percent of America's illegal drug market.

Just outside Atlanta, Gwinnett County is their new drug hub.

The District Attorney Danny Porter said, "We're finding them trans-shipping cocaine through Atlanta to Miami. So the days of cigarette boats and pastel suits - those are gone. I guess we're the new Miami Vice."

After nine weeks of surveillance, Whipple took down Alcaraz - searched his house, and made another arrest.

It's one interruption, in the daily surge of drugs and cash flowing between Atlanta's quiet suburbs and Mexico's meanest streets.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.