Less than a mile off a county road in Ivanhoe near the Black River, federal drug agents and local authorities found exactly what their informant had promised.
"We saw what looked like, as far as you could see, marijuana plants," said Drug Enforcement Administration agent Michael Franklin.
There were about 2,400 in all, surrounded by a makeshift camp where the growers had illegally squatted on private property, setting up a generator and pump to tap the river for irrigation. The camp, which had been recently inhabited, contained a tarp shelter, canned fuel, drinking water, toiletries and old clothing, some of it camouflage.
Authorities staked out the "grow" for two days waiting for the marijuana farmers to return. They didn't. It was just as well, Franklin said.
"The people we were really focusing on were not the guys tending the field. The guys bankrolling the field were the target," he said.
Those guys, according to the DEA's source, were members of La Familia Michoacana, a Mexican drug cartel that the Justice Department says focuses primarily on moving heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine into the southeastern and southwestern United States.
Because the investigation into the June 2009 seizure is still ongoing, the DEA would not divulge further details. But Franklin said the case is one in a growing list of cartel-linked busts he is seeing in largely rural southeastern North Carolina. The area's Latino population has grown considerably in the past 20 years, and authorities say cartel operatives use Latino communities as cover.
"While the majority of (Latino residents in the area) are hardworking people like anyone else, it's an opportunity for the cartels to have their foot soldiers do their thing, too," Franklin said. Based in Wilmington, he is resident agent in charge of 14 counties.
News of cartel machinations are common in cities near the border, such as Phoenix, and the far-flung drug hubs of New York, Chicago or Atlanta, but smaller towns bring business, too. In unsuspecting suburbs and rural areas, police are increasingly finding drugs, guns and money they can trace back to Mexican drug organizations.
The numbers could rise in coming years. The Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center estimates Mexican cartels control distribution of most of the methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana coming into the country, and they're increasingly producing the drugs themselves.
In 2009 and 2010, the center reported, cartels operated in 1,286 U.S. cities, more than five times the number reported in 2008. The center named only 50 cities in 2006.
Target communities often have an existing Hispanic population and a nearby interstate for ferrying drugs and money to and fro, said author Charles Bowden, whose books on the Mexican drug war include "Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields."
"I'm not saying Mexicans come here to do crime, but Mexicans who move drugs choose to do it through areas where there are already Mexicans," he said.
Evidence of the cartels' presence in small-town America isn't hard to find. Take the 66 kilos of cocaine found in a warehouse in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, in February 2011. Or the Wyoming, Michigan, man denied bail on drug charges last year because he had alleged cartel connections. Or consider that a surge of Mexican black tar heroin into Ohio pushed the price per kilogram down from $50,000 in 2008 to $33,000 in 2009.
Ties that bind
It isn't always so clear cut, Franklin said. The DEA has several cases where cartel activity is suspected, but agents are unable to draw definitive links.
In fact, so much of the Wilmington bureau's caseload involves suspected cartel activity that Franklin three years ago set up a tip line, which it now promotes on large Spanish-language radio stations across the state.
The 30-second spot urges listeners to call 1-855-663-7642 if they know of any illicit activity involving drugs or money, assures them calls are confidential and offers rewards for useful information.
Spanish-speaking operators answer calls to the tip line, vet the information and quickly inform the DEA when a tip seems viable. Callers range from good citizens sick of dealers in their neighborhoods to suspicious relatives to underpaid couriers looking to turn informant.
"Sometimes it's just a report that some dude is talking s**t at parties," Franklin said.
There are also those who are terrified to return home to face cartel justice, where a swift decapitation could be a merciful resolution. Franklin calls it "ajuste de cuentas," a term he learned while stationed in Mazatlan, Mexico. Meaning "reckoning" or "balancing the books," it's an order to take out a subordinate who loses money or drugs, and it's usually not pretty.
"If they lose a load of dope, how could they pay back $3 million in cocaine when their fee was only $5,000 to move it? That guy comes to our side and we seize that much cocaine, he's going to make a lot more money with us," Franklin said.
DEA agents recently allowed CNN to accompany them on a seizure generated by the tip line.
It was just after 8 on a February night, and a mild, chilly rain fell on the SUV as we waited, watching "30 Rock" on a smartphone and snacking on peanuts and beef jerky in lieu of supper.
We had followed Franklin three hours to an empty parking lot off I-74 in High Point, North Carolina, some 200 miles from WIlmington. Something was about to go down, but neither Franklin nor the DEA handler in our SUV would say what.
It's not all shootouts, high-speed chases and kicking down doors, as Hollywood tells it. There's a lot of waiting, watching, listening -- estimating the perfect time to make a move.
At about 9 p.m., the call came. Franklin directed us to an unassuming middle-class neighborhood a quarter-mile away. The exact location: a one-story white house with a "Neighborhood Watch Community" sign in a picture window by the front door.
When we arrived, shadows moved back and forth behind the lattice wall of a carport as police and DEA agents entered and exited the house. Franklin told us that authorities had just found two men inside with 115 pounds of marijuana bricks in a black trash bag.
They also found a ledger suggesting there was more weed at one time. A shoebox containing $76,899 seemed to confirm it.
Nearby residents seemed clueless about the drugs being moved through their community. After the raid, one concerned and curious neighbor told police there had been break-ins in the area, but that it's generally safe.