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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
District of Colorado

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, October 8, 2015

Confronting Wave of Illicit Marijuana Cultivation, Federal, State and Local Authorities Discover and Destroy Major Marijuana Grows in Locations Across Colorado

Over 30 Individuals Charged in Federal Court

DENVER. – Over the course of the last six weeks, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies have identified and dismantled a large number of illicit marijuana cultivation sites across Colorado, and seized a large amount of marijuana. Some illicit grows were located in multiple residences and outbuildings, while many others were located on federal land, causing environmental damage to the land that may take years to mitigate. In every case, the marijuana grows were both illegal under federal law and unlicensed by state authorities under Colorado’s marijuana regulatory system.  In several cases, the marijuana grown was destined for users outside of Colorado.

These raids, executed by federal law enforcement (DEA, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)) and state law enforcement (multiple sheriff’s offices) have resulted in the arrest of 32 individuals in connection with the cultivation sites, and the discovery and seizure or destruction of nearly 20,000 marijuana plants – often mature and ready for harvest -- and over 300 kilograms of dried marijuana. In addition to the marijuana, firearms and cash have been recovered. Further, there are ongoing investigations in a number of the grows listed below.

The 32 individuals arrested face federal drug trafficking charges brought by the United States Attorney’s Office in federal court in Denver and Grand Junction.

As alleged in court documents, nearly all of those arrested are from outside Colorado, either other states or from other countries, and include Mexican and Cuban nationals.   Some of those arrested are in the United States illegally. Court documents allege that some of those responsible for the marijuana growing and/or trafficking appear to be working for drug trafficking organizations. To date, the following illicit grows have been identified and dismantled:

  • *          Private Land, September 1st, Cotopaxi and Westcliffe in Freemont and Custer County, 20 people arrested.

A DEA-led task force executed 8 search warrants in Cotopaxi and Westcliffe as part of a major drug trafficking organization investigation. Agents and officers found well over 1,000 marijuana plants, 50 pounds of dried marijuana, 28 firearms, and $25,000 in cash. The investigation and seizures resulted ultimately in the arrest of 20 individuals, many from Cuba, acting in an organized manner. Those arrested were growing the marijuana in Cotopaxi and Westcliffe, and then either driving or using UPS to send the marijuana to Florida.

  • *          Pike National Forest, August 19th, in the Green Mountain Area in Jefferson County, investigation is ongoing.

Law Enforcement Officers from the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the Colorado National Guard Joint Counter Drug Task Force joined together to complete an eradication of an illegal marijuana grow site in the Pike National Forest. The eradication team collected more than 3,900 plants and over 3,000 pounds of irrigation pipe, pesticides, flammable liquids, camping gear and trash.

  • *          Routt National Forest, August 28th, Buffalo Pass Area in Routt County, 2 arrested.

Law Enforcement Officers from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Routt County Sheriff’s Office joined together to eradicate an illegal marijuana grow site located in the Buffalo Pass area, northeast of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The eradication team collected approximately 1,000 plants and removed camping gear from the site. Further, a handgun was found. Additional site clean-up of trash and other items will be ongoing by the U.S. Forest Service. Two Mexican Nationals in the country illegally were arrested.

  • *          San Isabel National Forest, September 7th, Cordova Pass Area northwest of Trinidad in Huerfano County, 2 arrested.

Hunters discovered an illegal marijuana grow site located in the Cordova Pass area approximately 40 miles northwest of Trinidad. The eradication team collected more than 11,700 plants as well as irrigation pipe, pesticides, flammable liquids, camping gear and trash. The U.S. Forest Service and Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office are working together to identify the individuals. The cultivation site spread across 10 acres with some of the growing areas above 10,000 feet in elevation. The overall grow area included a kitchen structure, three sleeping areas, and a rifle. Two men were arrested at one of the camp sites within the cultivation area.

  • *          Bureau of Land Management Land, September 15th, along the Dolores River corridor between Gateway and Naturita in Montrose County, 4 arrested.

BLM Rangers discovered more than 1,200 fully mature marijuana plants, many exceeding six-feet-tall, along with 211 kilograms of dried marijuana and a rifle. Because of the size of the operation, officers spent two and a half days eradicating and removing the plants. The rangers arrested four Mexican nationals who were on-scene and believed to be working the grow site.

  • *          Bureau of Land Management Land, September 30th, also along the Dolores River corridor between Gateway and Naturita in Montrose County, 6 arrested.

Law enforcement officers identified a marijuana grow site, also along the Dolores River. Evidence of at least a thousand marijuana plants appeared recently harvested with approximately 69.6 kilograms of processed marijuana still on site. The rangers arrested one Honduran and five Mexican nationals at or near the site.

These matters represent a wave of illicit marijuana cultivation in violation of federal law and operating outside Colorado’s marijuana regulatory structure.  Federal, state and local authorities are working in close cooperation to address this unusually large and widespread group of illicit marijuana grows.  In addition, federal, state and local authorities are engaged in investigation of other potential illicit grows around the state.

Each of these enforcement actions is pursuant to, and consistent with, the Department’s Guidance Memorandum of August 29, 2013 to federal prosecutors, also known as the “Cole Memo.”   The Cole Memo set forth eight areas of federal interest (the “Cole Factors”) and advised federal prosecutors to focus federal law enforcement resources on those priority areas.   The enforcement actions summarized in this press release implicate many of those federal interests, including but not limited to:

  • Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
  • Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  • Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana;
  • Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
  • Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

In addition, these marijuana grows represent systematic efforts to evade and sidestep Colorado’s ongoing regulatory efforts under state law, and as a result implicate the Cole Memo’s emphasis on ensuring that state regulatory regimes are effective in practice.

“These joint federal-state law enforcement actions against large illicit marijuana grows represent a new phase in the challenges facing law enforcement after Colorado’s legalization and regulation of marijuana under state law,” said United States Attorney John Walsh.  “Illegal activity of this kind underscores the need for strong, joint law enforcement efforts by federal and state authorities to identify, cut off and destroy the efforts of drug trafficking organizations to use Colorado as a ‘source state’ for export of illegal marijuana around the country.   State and local authorities deserve our appreciation and support for their efforts on the ground to team up with federal authorities on this critically important effort to keep Colorado safe.”

“The illegal cultivation of marijuana is a serious threat to our communities, especially when it’s done on public land,” stated Barbra Roach, Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Denver Field Division. “Our parks and public lands are for everyone to enjoy, and the health and safety of visitors must not be threatened by the illegal activities of criminal organizations and the cultivators they employ. Those responsible must be stopped and held accountable.”

“Since many of the suspects of the recently discovered marijuana grow operations in Colorado are undocumented aliens, Homeland Security Investigations can provide unique and extensive law enforcement authorities to investigate these cases,” said David A. Thompson, special agent in charge of HSI Denver. “Our partnership with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies helps ensure that these criminal organizations are totally dismantled, making communities and public lands safer.”

“The Forest Service remains committed to provide public safety and protection of the natural resources on national forest lands by aggressively working to locate illegal marijuana sites, arrest and pursue prosecution of the growers and clean up the sites,” said U.S. Forest Service Special Agent in Charge Laura Mark. “The significant safety concerns and environmental damage caused by these marijuana sites is a priority for Forest Service Law Enforcement.”

"Illegal marijuana cultivation on public land brings hazards like illegal waste disposal, use of illegal pesticides, herbicides, and rodenticides; and the illegal use of the public's water," said BLM Colorado Special Agent in Charge Gary Mannino. "In order to protect the public as well as the public's natural resources, BLM will continue to enforce federal prohibitions on marijuana cultivation on public lands. This is particularly timely during hunting season, when so many Coloradans head out to enjoy their public lands."

“It is vitally important that we work together with our law enforcement partners in the endeavor to locate and eliminate illegal marijuana grow operations off of our public lands and out of our neighborhoods,” said Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader.

“As the elected sheriff of Routt County, I am proud of the working relationship with our Federal partners regarding all matter of public safety,” said Garrett Wiggins, Sheriff of Routt County.  “Earlier this year, the Routt County Sheriff’s Office partnered with numerous federal and state law enforcement agencies in a large, illegal marijuana grow investigation located in the Routt National Forest.  Even though the State of Colorado passed state laws legalizing limited marijuana use, the practice of growing illegal marijuana crops on our public lands continues.  This illegal practice creates serious public safety concerns for our citizens enjoying the many outdoor activities in our areas.  In addition, these clandestine activities cause serious concerns to our natural resources associated with erosion and contamination of water sources from chemical and sometimes illegal substances being introduced through the fertilization process.  Our goal is to continue to work with all our local, state and federal partners in investigating all public safety issues and hold those individuals accountable who participate in illegal activity.”

“Huerfano County is experiencing the same problems with marijuana that many other counties are – that citizens think because it is legal they can do whatever they want,” said Huerfano County Sheriff Bruce Newman. “Those who don’t follow the law will be arrested and their marijuana confiscated and destroyed.”

“I would like to extend my appreciation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, DEA, Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office and the Pueblo Police Department for their direct assistance in this operation,” said Custer County Sheriff Shannon K. Byerly. “Their help was critical in conducting this without incident. I would also like to recognize the efforts of the men and women of the Custer County Sheriff’s Office who contributed to this mission. This was an important step to gain control over the illegal production and sales of Marijuana in our area and we will continue to investigate those attempting to take advantage of the Marijuana laws in Colorado. Our communities earned an important victory today.”

“Because of the negative impact illegal drug trafficking has on our communities, we are very appreciative of the superb relationships that have been fostered between the federal agencies and all the local agencies involved. With this cooperative effort, we have come together to address a mutual problem,” said Fremont County Undersheriff Ty Martin.

Many agencies have worked together to identify and eradicate these public grows. Those agencies include: the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and local and state law enforcement.

Those arrested are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys from the Major Crimes Section and the Drug Task Force Section of the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Topic: 
Drug Trafficking
Updated October 8, 2015