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Alex Bowman (48) crosses the start/finish line to win a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va., Sunday, April 18, 2021.


Education
Kidney recipient and his donor celebrate and raise awareness at 5K in Greensboro

GREENSBORO — After her sprint across the finish line of the Pig Pounder 5K on Sunday, kidney donor and Allen Jay Elementary School principal Carla Flores-Ballesteros was glowing. 

"It just feels so good," she said. "It's just amazing." 

About four months ago, Flores-Ballesteros donated one of her kidneys to John Brown. 

Both are educators and Brown is the spouse of Flores-Ballesteros's friend and school district colleague Patrice Brown, the principal of Western Guilford Middle School. 

On Sunday they and their spouses and other family and friends participated together in the 5K event.  

They wanted to raise awareness about organ donation for everyone, but also especially for people of color. Brown is Black and Flores-Ballesteros is Hispanic. 

Organizers of the race helped them out. Anyone who registered for the Pig Pounder event was given the option to donate money to support organ donation as part of the online registration process. They also sold T-shirts designed by Flores-Ballesteros' husband Jorge Ballesteros. 

And representatives from Wake Forest Baptist Health and Carolina Donor Services were there to answer questions and hand out pamphlets about living and deceased organ donation.

Carrie Simpkins, transplant administrator with Wake Forest Baptist Health, said that anyone can speak with them anonymously to explore becoming a living organ donor. If there's a specific person you are considering donating to, she said, they don't have to know you are looking into it before you've made up your mind.  

Simpkins said she would love more invitations to events like this one to help spread the word.

Both kidney donors and recipients go through surgery, but life and recovery afterward looks different. 

A couple weeks after his surgery, John Brown started feeling better than he had before the surgery took place. And now he said he's feeling better than he has in more than a decade. 

But being a transplant recipient isn't quite as simple as just feeling better and never worrying about your kidneys again. 

Brown has to safeguard his health through diet and exercise and take a series of new medications, including medicine that suppresses his immune system to keep it from attacking his new kidney. 

He and his wife are both vaccinated against COVID-19, but he's still working virtually at his job as an assistant principal for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools as a precaution. 

Though they are now fewer and further between than right after his surgery, Brown's post-surgery life still involves regular checkups with his doctor to make sure his body isn't rejecting the organ. And he has to keep tabs on his mental health, ensuring he is focused on staying healthy. 

For Flores-Ballesteros, life after surgery has meant her body getting used to having only one kidney. Her energy level, she said, dropped noticeably after the surgery, but it has been rising ever since. She said on the Friday before the race that her energy level was about 90 percent of what it used to be. She expects to recover fully. 

Before the surgery, Flores-Ballesteros enjoyed running and since then she's slowly eased back into it. She did the Pig Pounder on Sunday with a combination of running and walking. 

Brown, who had never participated in a 5K before, walked the race with his wife, after a moment or two of jogging with Flores-Ballesteros at the start of the race. 

Flores-Ballesteros cheered for them as they crossed the finish line and put Brown's race participant medal around his neck. Then the families posed together, grinning, for photos.  

Brown said the hills of the course were a little exhausting, "but we got through it." 

"Well worth the effort," he said. 

Photo: Kidney transplant pair race 5k to increase awareness

Local
top story
Bats in the attic? Here's some advice and fun facts about these much-maligned creatures

It’s nearly time for bats to begin raising their young – a welcome or disconcerting idea, depending upon your feelings about this mammal. Pup-rearing season is May 1 – July 31.

And while bat houses are sold online and in retail stores, these critters can also take up residence in people houses.

Should you discover such house guests, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission asks that you find a wildlife control agent to remove them before May 1. (Seriously, would you wait to do this?) You can find professionals at www.ncpaws.org/ncwrcmaps/WCA.

If you miss that deadline, the commission recommends leaving the bats alone until the end of July. A wildlife control agent can seal off any entryways into the living space of your home.

If exposed to a bat, contact the Guilford County health department at 336-641-7777 to have the animal tested for rabies. Generally, though, rabies is not commonly found in bats.

Here are some facts about this adept flier which, by the way, generally has good eyesight.

• Bats in North Carolina hibernate or migrate south during the winter.

• Young bats are flightless for three to four weeks after birth and depend on their mothers to survive.

• Of the 17 species of bats found in North Carolina, three are federally endangered (Indiana, gray, and Virginia big-eared), and one, the northern long-eared bat, is federally threatened.

• Bats nearly devour their own body weight in insects nightly.

• A protein found in vampire bat saliva has been used to develop clot-busting medication to aid stroke victims.

• Bat droppings, called guano, generally are about the same size and shape as mouse droppings. They are often found in piles, created by roosting bats.

• Bats return to the same roost each spring. For tips on building, buying or installing bat boxes, visit batcon.org/about-bats/bat-houses.

Sources: N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; New York State Integrated Pest Management


Crime-and-courts
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'Worse than any war zone.' Teacher's killing reveals drug cartels' growing N.C. footprint

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.”


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