When a Union County school teacher and a member of a brutal Mexican drug cartel were shot to death earlier this month, it sounded like a scene from the television series “Breaking Bad.”
But current and former law enforcement officials say it illuminated a broader problem: North Carolina has become a land of opportunity for major drug traffickers.
Charlotte lawyer Chris Swecker, who spent much of his previous FBI career focused on drug cartels, says North Carolina has everything the Mexican cartels need to carry out their work.
“We have the markets. We have the population centers. We have the interstate network. We have the trucking infrastructure,” said Swecker, who previously served as North Carolina’s lead FBI agent and later as an assistant director for the bureau’s criminal investigations unit.
“It’s a perfect distribution center,” Swecker said.
It’s also a distribution center without specific ZIP codes. While urban centers from Charlotte to Raleigh fall along the shipping lines, big-time cartel drugs also are flowing through the small-town Carolinas, as the Alamance County shooting clearly shows.
The April 8 shootings claimed the lives of Union Academy Charter School teacher Barney Dale Harris and Alonso Beltran Lara, a member of the Jalisco New Generation cartel who Harris allegedly was trying to rob, authorities said.
Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, whose office investigated the shootings, said he has seen a marked increase in drug trafficking and violence by the cartels. And he said he has grown tired of all the killings and overdoses that result.
Johnson said few people in small-town North Carolina want to accept that the cartels are infiltrating their communities.
“I’ve been in law enforcement 50 years. And I’ve not seen anything like what I’ve seen in the last two years,” he said. “...It’s become a problem of epidemic proportions here in North Carolina. And we’d better get a handle on it.”
One indication of the problem: Since Feb. 14, authorities in Alamance County have seized 129 kilos of cocaine and about $2.3 million in cash from drug cartel members and their associates, Johnson said.
Johnson estimates that law enforcement officers are “not getting but 1% of the drugs coming into this area.”
The sheriff said his county has become a popular place for the drug cartels to do business, partly because it sits between two of North Carolina’s largest cities — Raleigh and Greensboro — and because Interstates 85 and 40 run through it. The county is about 36 miles west of Durham and 115 miles northeast of Charlotte.
At one point, Johnson said, the Drug Enforcement Administration called his county the “drug hub of the Southeast.”
“We don’t have the manpower the big cities have to deal with this issue,” he said.
Johnson said the drug cartels have more sophisticated equipment than his department does.
“They can slap a tracker on a police officer’s car and know when they’re snooping around,” he said.
North Carolina’s drug pipeline
Given its interstate links to Atlanta, south Florida, the West Coast and other drug centers, North Carolina remains a popular destination for Mexican trafficking networks, especially the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, more commonly known to law enforcement as CJNG.
The cartel has quickly emerged as perhaps Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization, with deep drug-trafficking ties to the Carolinas.
Last year, then-U.S. Attorney Andrew Murray of Charlotte described the cartel as “ruthless,” and said it was responsible for flooding the small towns and urban areas of western North Carolina “with enormous quantities of powerful narcotics.”
In 2020, the federal courts here prosecuted multiple members of the cartel, including Ramiro Garcia Valdivia, a 33-year-old Mexican undocumented immigrant who was arrested in Gastonia and charged with trafficking 8 kilograms of Mexican heroin. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Six other N.C. defendants — including five from the Charlotte area — were also prosecuted in 2020 under “Project Python,” a DEA-led crackdown on CJNG operations nationwide. Overall, federal prosecutors announced more than 600 arrests of defendants with alleged ties to the cartel.
In 2019, six alleged CJNG members were arrested and charged with moving large amounts of cocaine and methamphetamines through Mecklenburg and Iredell counties.
The amount and value of the drugs moving through the Charlotte area can be staggering. In one local example, the trafficking operation sounded like it came from a movie script.
In 2014, Pedro Oscar Dieguez, also known as “The Cuban,” was sentenced to 33 years in prison after he and his co-conspirators were convicted of trafficking 700 kilograms of Mexican cartel cocaine during the previous decade. The drugs were valued at $21 million.
According to prosecutors, Dieguez’ drug shipments arrived at his 16-acre farm in Indian Trail, North Carolina. It was there that Dieguez kept his collection of exotic horses, which he purchased to help launder his drug money.
He was arrested before he could make good on his plans to flee to Cuba.
Johnson, the Alamance County sheriff, said the government needs to open its eyes to what’s going on.
“We’ve had more drive-by shooting and killings in Alamance County than we’ve ever had. ... This is, in my opinion, a Homeland Security issue.”
Cartels rely on violence
The Mexican cartels typically transport their drugs on major interstates, including interstates 40, 85, 95 and 77 in North Carolina, Swecker said. Some drug shipments are carried in cars and SUVS with specially designed stash compartments, he said. Others are hidden inside tractor-trailers that are also transporting legal goods.
“Originally, (North Carolina) was just a pass-through,” Swecker said. “Now, (the drug cartels) are setting up stash houses in places like Charlotte, Burlington and Raleigh.”
Many of those drugs are then transported to larger metropolitan areas like New York City and Washington, D.C. Sometimes, Swecker said, the cartels also set up “retail operations” in North Carolina cities to sell drugs in those communities.
Too often, law enforcement officials say, people get hurt or killed in the process.
“We tend to view drugs as benign these days,” Swecker said. “But these cartels, they cut off heads just to make a statement. They kidnap family members just to make a statement.
“These are the most ruthless SOBs you could ever deal with. They’ll put you in a vat of lye. They’ll cut your tongue out, just to send a message. It’s worse than any war zone.”