In January came the indictments that disrupted an alleged drug trafficking operation. April brought the arrests of two individuals suspected of trafficking a large quantity of heroin.
Both operations were part of the 7th Judicial District Drug Task Force’s work, which in the first six months of the year saw the arrests of 15 suspects and the seizure of 3 pounds of illegal narcotics. Methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and black market marijuana were part of the haul during the first half of the year.
“It’s very concerning, especially in the realm of the amount of heroin that has been seized in the community in the last six months,” Montrose Police Chief Blaine Hall said.
He pointed to the April task force arrests of Joaquin Chavez-Luna and Nakisha Ramirez, who have since been charged with the intent to distribute drugs and related offenses.
Authorities said they seized “distribution-level” amounts of heroin during the operation. The officer who leads the task force said 1.1 kilos were seized.
“We’ve known for quite a while that individuals in our community have those means and have those opportunities. This is kind of a shocker when you actually find that much,” the task force head said. Because he works undercover, the Daily Press is not identifying him at this time.
“We’ve seen a significant increase. That’s one of the drugs we try to target. The seizure of heroin we had was one of the biggest the drug task force has ever seized,” he said.
“The drugs are not going away. In most cases, it’s probably becoming more prevalent. We’re going to continue to see it,” he added.
“Some of the numbers that we have seen recently are definitely unheard of in Western Colorado,” Montrose County Sheriff Gene Lillard said, referring to heroin. “They’re large amounts.”
The Montrose Police Department and Montrose County Sheriff’s Office contribute officers to the drug task force, which also works with the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA established a presence in Montrose last year.
January’s federal indictments came after a lengthy investigation by the partners. In all, 13 people were accused of varying levels of involvement in a scheme to traffic mass quantities of methamphetamine and less than 100 grams of heroin.
Charged in the indictment were: Omar Briceno-Quijano, Ofelia Lopez, Luis Ibarra-Tadeo, Romeo Lujan, Angelina Maestas (who was subsequently accused of witness tampering), Joseph Davis, Naomi Vaugh, Jonte LeFlore, Dustin Debarris, Steven K. Jones, Frank Arroyo, Amanda Sumpter and Nicole Wickman.
Their cases are ongoing in the federal court system and the case has had a “ripple effect,” Lillard said.
“It is incredible and it should concern our citizens,” Hall said.
“The two primary substances they (task force) are recovering are methamphetamine and heroin,” he added.
“The meth is something we’re always combating,” the task force leader said.
The task force is also obtaining and serving arrest warrants on those suspected of distributing meth; he said that in May, agents arrested a person who had a statewide warrant for possessing a distribution-level amount of meth and possession of a weapon by a previous offender.
“With changes in the marijuana laws that have happened, it changed some things, but we’re seeing black market, illegal distribution and growing of it,” the agent also said.
Marijuana can be legally grown, cultivated and sold in Colorado by those who go through the correct process and obtain the necessary licenses, inspections and facilities. It cannot be legally sold across state lines, nor by people who are not properly licensed.
In recent weeks, investigators found between 500 and 600 plants being grown illegally in the county, Lillard said. That case is under active investigation by the task force, DEA, MCSO and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
“It seems like the task force and our (MCSO) High Impact Target Team stay very busy gathering intel and doing surveillance on drug houses in the city and the county,” Lillard said.
The sheriff’s HITT unit conducts proactive patrols, on the lookout for property crimes and drugs, particularly street-level dealers. The unit is also active in finding people wanted on warrants. The team helps the task force with such tasks as surveillance, as well as at times conducts undercover drug interdiction on the highways.
“We believe that it’s making a difference. Even the property crimes have slowed down,” Lillard said.
Part of the dip in such crimes may be due to the effects of stay-home orders issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With more homeowners in their residences, there are fewer opportunities for thieves to strike. Lillard also said COVID-19 seems to be slowing the flow of drugs across the border, although authorities are now starting to see an uptick.
Partnerships between the task force and DEA have proven beneficial, agency heads said.
“It’s been a very valuable organization to have in the county. It has brought the organizations a lot closer, as far as working together with the police department, sheriff’s office, CBI and the DEA. It has worked out very well,” Lillard said, adding the agencies have also started to work with the U.S. Marshals Service to pick up people wanted on federal warrants.
The drug task force leader called the DEA “an outstanding partner.”
“They just add to our resources. They have access to things we just wouldn’t have access to,” he said.
Hall hailed the “mutual partnership,” as the DEA both assists the drug task force and conducts its own investigations.
The task force continues its work and cooperation with other agencies.
“We have more than enough in Montrose and the 7th Judicial District to keep us extremely busy,” the task force leader said.