Five men dead in an apartment.
In a county that might see five homicides in an entire year, the call over the sheriff's radio revealed little about what awaited law enforcement. A type of crime, and criminal, once foreign to this landscape of blooming dogwoods had arrived in Shelby County. Sheriff Chris Curry felt it even before he saw the grisly scene. He called the state. The FBI. The DEA.
"I don't know what I've got," he warned. "But I'm gonna need help."
The five dead men lay scattered about a living room. Some showed signs of torture: Burns seared into their earlobes revealed where modified jumper cables had been clamped as an improvised electrocution device. Adhesive from duct tape used to bind the victims still clung to wrists and faces.
As a final touch, throats were slashed, post-mortem.
It didn't take long for Curry and federal agents to piece together clues: A murder scene, clean save for the crimson-turned-brown stains now spotting the carpet. Just a couple of mattresses tossed on the floor. It was a typical stash house.
But the cut throats? Some sort of ghastly warning.
Curry would soon find this was a retaliation hit over drug money with ties to Mexico's notorious Gulf cartel.
Curry also found out firsthand what narcotics agents have long understood. The drug war, with the savagery it brings, knows no bounds. It had landed in his back yard, in the foothills of the Appalachians, around the corner from The Home Depot.
One thousand, twenty-four miles from the Mexico border.
Drug cartels fighting each other
Forget for a moment the phrase itself — "War on Drugs" — much-derided since President Richard Nixon coined it. Wars eventually end, after all. And many Americans wonder today, nearly four decades later, will this one ever be won?
In Mexico, the fight has become a real war. Some 45,000 Mexican army troops now patrol territories long ruled by narcotraffickers. Places like Tijuana in Baja California. Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from Texas. But also resort cities like Acapulco, an hour south of the place where, months ago, the decapitated bodies of 12 soldiers were discovered with a sign that read: "For every one of mine that you kill, I will kill 10."
More than 10,560 people have been killed since 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office and launched his campaign against the organized crime gangs that move cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin to a vast U.S. market.
The cartels are fighting each other for power, and the Calderon administration for their very survival.
"He has deployed troops. He has deployed national police. He's trying to vet and create units ... that can effectively adjudicate and turn back the years of corruption," says John Walters, former director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. "When there was less visible destruction, it was because they were in control. Now, he has destabilized them."
But the cartels have also brought the fight to us. In 230 U.S. cities, the organizations maintain distribution hubs or supply drugs to local distributors, the federal government reports. Places like Miami and other longtime transportation points along the Southwest border. But also Twin Falls, Idaho. Billings, Mont. Wichita, Kan. St. Louis. Milwaukee.
Even Shelby County, where the quintuple homicide occurred just outside the Birmingham city limits and a half-hour's drive north of Columbiana, the county seat.
"We became a hub without knowing it," Sheriff Curry says.
The talk of the day is "spillover" violence — at once the stuff of sensationalism but also a very real concept.
In Phoenix, police report close to 1,000 kidnappings over the past three years tied to border smugglers moving people or drugs or both. In Atlanta, a major distribution hub for the Gulf cartel, trafficker-on-trafficker violence has become more common as the cartels impose tighter payment schedules and grow less tolerant of extending credit, says Rodney Benson, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration there.
Greg Borland heads the DEA office in Birmingham. Since the murders last August, he's seen the fear in his neighbors' eyes, faced the questions of: How did this happen? Why here? Why now?
"They're absolutely shocked. To me it's like: Why? It's everywhere," he says. "Maybe it was only by the grace of God that it hadn't happened already."
Those in the know understand that drug-related violence is hardly unusual. What's new is where that violence is erupting, where distribution cells and hubs and sub-hubs have surfaced.
How an apartment in Alabama became the site of a drug hit in many ways tells the story of the narco-trade in America in 2009, and of the challenges we face in combating a blight that has spread to big cities and small.
Trucks used to haul drugs
Before Aug. 20, 2008, when the five men were found, the assumption had been that the big drug hauls were passing through.
Alabama had long had its share of street dealers. Homegrown pot passed hands, then powder cocaine and crack. Soon meth labs cropped up here and there.
"Just a local issue," says Curry. "But over time it's escalated into a sophisticated transportation structure."
First came the rise of the Mexican cartel, brought about in the late '80s and early '90s after authorities cracked down on Colombian traffickers. The Colombians aligned with the Mexicans for transportation, then began paying their Mexican subcontractors in cocaine.
As more Colombian traffickers were brought down, the Mexicans took over both transportation and distribution. A decade ago, 60 percent of the cocaine entering the United States came through Mexico. Today that figure is 90 percent.
Texas and other border states become primary distribution hubs, and distributors were comfortable there, says Greg Bowden, who heads the FBI's violent crime task force in Birmingham. "Now," he says, "they're comfortable here, in Memphis, in Atlanta. They moved their home bases to these little pockets."
One reason for that shift is the ability these days to "blend in in plain sight," as the Atlanta DEA chief puts it.
The flood of Hispanic immigrants into American communities for work helped provide cover for traffickers looking to expand into new markets. Shelby has long been Alabama's fastest-growing county, and the number of Hispanics grew 126 percent from 2000 to 2007.
But there is another reason this area, and others, have become what some agents call "sub-hubs."
With some 4.9 million trucks crossing into the United States from Mexico every year, tractor-trailers have become a transportation mode of choice among traffickers. Drugs head north, but weapons and cash also head back south.
Shelby County is a trucking mecca, with highways 65, 20, 59 and 459 running east, north, south and west. Once reluctant to haul drug shipments too far beyond a border state, drivers are willing to take more chances now, because there are so many trucks on the road, Bowden says.
Violence north of the border
Amid all of this, an operation moved into Shelby County, leading to the call on Aug. 20.
A simple welfare check brought deputies to the Cahaba Lakes Apartments off Highway 280, 11 miles from downtown Birmingham. Interviews with family members and associates helped investigators piece together a sketchy portrait of what happened.
Agents described it as friendly competition turned deadly among a group of distributors from Atlanta and Birmingham that often sold and shared drug loads when one or the other group was running low. At some point, about a half-million in drug money went missing. One group suspected the other of taking it, and went after the five men at Cahaba Lakes.
The money was never found.
Whether an order came directly from Mexico, investigators don't know. The DEA's Borland notes that making a direct connection between the street level folks charged in the killing and a specific cartel "boss" isn't easy in a business with so many players at various levels.
"We don't have canceled checks of their dues payments to the cartels. But we know that they were moving large quantities of drugs, which are probably brought in here under the supervision of the Gulf Cartel, because the Gulf Cartel is the dominant one here," he says.
Since the incident, Curry has assigned one deputy to a DEA task force, another to work with the FBI. At the behest of the Department of Homeland Security, he joined in a conference call with police chiefs and sheriffs in border states to discuss what he now calls "a common problem."
And he answers, as candidly as possible, his citizens' questions when they ask him about this "new" threat.
"South of our border: gunfights, violence — it is a normal, accepted, expected behavior," he says. "That has now moved into our borders."
Ask just about any DEA agent or expert who keeps a close watch on drug trafficking, and they'll cringe at the use of the word "war." They'll tell you, flat out, that no, it's not likely ever to be won. So they take their victories where they can.
And there have been victories.
Heads of cartels have been toppled. Juan Garcia Abrego, former chief of the Gulf cartel, is serving 11 life terms in a Colorado federal prison after his 1996 arrest in Mexico and extradition to the United States. His successor, Osiel Cardenas, awaits trial in Houston after his 2007 extradition from Mexico. These handovers have become almost routine under Calderon, who last year sent a record 95 wanted criminals to the United States for prosecution.
In February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the arrest of more than 750 people as part of "Operation Xcellerator," which targeted Mexico's most powerful drug organization, the Sinaloa cartel.
President Barack Obama has promised to dispatch hundreds of additional agents to the border, along with more gear and drug-sniffing dogs. And a $1.3 billion Bush-era initiative will provide drug-fighting aircraft and equipment to Mexico over the next three years.
But the answer to this problem is as complex as the problem itself. In Mexico, corruption has infected almost every level of government. Here, we still fight to curb the appetite that fuels all of this.
Many months after the Shelby County case, the Alabama sheriff still grapples with the ugly reality of what happened there. Arrests were swift, and six suspects now are held without bond in the county jail, charged with capital murder.
Still, it is a victory without call for celebration, because Curry wonders when and where it will happen again.
"This is not an isolated incident. It is a standard business practice with this group of people," he says. "I can't predict whether it's going to be repeated here or not, but it's going to be repeated in communities throughout the United States whenever these disagreements occur."