The white, split-level house sits in a middle-class Lawrenceville neighborhood, walking distance from an elementary school.
“The only that was was missing, it didn’t have a picket fence,” Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said.
Authorities said Thursday the house was a meth lab — one of the largest federal agents have ever seen — used by the violent Mexican drug cartel La Familia.
“I’m shocked because this neighborhood is full of kids,” said Brooke Payne, 30, who lives next door with her husband and son. “My son is 6, he runs around, across this yard to the kids who live over in the next house…It’s just unreal.”
Wednesday, she watched as authorities seized 174 pounds of crystal methamphetamine from the house on La Maison Drive and took La Familia members out in handcuffs.
It was part of a nationwide sweep officials called the largest single strike at Mexican drug operations in the U.S. In all, 303 people were arrested in 38 cities from Boston to Seattle.
In metro Atlanta, authorities arrested 31 people in Gwinnett County, three in Cobb and one in Clayton while recovering a total of 188 pounds of crystal meth, 17 kilos of cocaine, 13 guns and $50,000.
Gwinnett police officers raided 10 locations in that county alone. Rodney Benson, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Atlanta Field Division, said metro Atlanta, Dallas and the Los Angeles area were La Familia’s biggest operational centers.
In the La Maison house, La Familia members used flammable chemicals to crystallize a liquid solution of methamphetamine manufactured in Mexico, Benson said.
A neighbor told agents that a young woman and her baby who were living in the house left for Mexico after the baby got burned.
“It’s clearly indicative of contact with the caustic chemicals used,” Porter said.
La Familia controls much of the crystal meth market in the U.S., according to authorities.
In July, after a dozen Mexican police officers were found murdered, the Mexican and U.S. governments stepped up efforts to crack down on La Familia.
Attorney General Eric Holder pledged Thursday to keep hitting La Familia, saying the U.S. would attack them at all levels, from the leadership to their supply chains reaching far into the United States.
Wednesday’s raids involved hundreds of federal, state and local law-enforcement officers across metro Atlanta. Benson called the so-called Project Coronado a severe blow to La Familia.
“We have to keep the pressure on and that’s what we’re gonna do,” Benson said.
For Payne, who is expecting her second child, Wednesday’s raid brought shock, then relief.
“It’s crazy to think that the house (next door) could blow up and catch on fire,” she said. “It kind of makes me sad, but I’m very thankful they got it when they did. Very thankful.”