Leaders of Taos County-Based Drug Trafficking and Money Laundering Ring Sentenced to Prison
Defendants Prosecuted as Part of HOPE Initiative Which Seeks to Reduce the Number of Opioid-Related Deaths in New Mexico
ALBUQUERQUE – The leaders of a Taos County-based drug trafficking organization were sentenced yesterday to lengthy terms of incarceration for convictions on heroin trafficking and firearms charges arising out of a DEA-led multi-agency investigation. Ivan Romero, 41, of El Prado, N.M., was sentenced to 130 months of imprisonment followed by five years of supervised release, while his brother, Ricco Romero, 28, of Taos, N.M., was sentenced to 120 months of imprisonment followed by five years of supervised release. Each of the defendants was ordered to forfeit $448,590 in cash, and Rico Romero also was ordered to forfeit two firearms. Additionally, each defendant was ordered to pay $15,000 in community restitution.
Ivan Romero, Ricco Romero, and six co-defendants initially were charged with methamphetamine trafficking, heroin trafficking and money laundering offenses in an eight-count indictment filed in Dec. 2015. The indictment was superseded in Feb. 2016 to add another defendant, Elena Carabajal, 27, of El Prado, and five additional charges. The superseding indictment charged Ivan Romero, Ricco Romero and seven co-defendants with conspiring to distribute heroin and methamphetamine from at least June 2012 through Dec. 2015. It also charged Ivan Romero, Ricco Romero, Melissa Romero, 38, of El Prado, and Wilma Romero, 67, of Taos, with conspiring to launder heroin trafficking proceeds. The superseding indictment also included substantive heroin trafficking charges against several of the defendants as well as provisions seeking forfeiture to the United States of all assets and property derived, either directly or indirectly, from proceeds obtained from the criminal activities charged.
Ivan Romero and Ricco Romero both entered guilty pleas on Dec. 5, 2016. Both men admitted participating in a heroin trafficking conspiracy and a money laundering conspiracy, and Ricco Romero also admitted possessing firearms in furtherance of his drug trafficking activities. According to the admissions contained in their plea agreements and other court filings, Ivan Romero was the leader of a heroin trafficking organization based in Taos County. Ivan Romero and Ricco Romero were responsible for purchasing quantities of heroin from suppliers in Albuquerque and Los Lunas, N.M. Other members of the organization acted as couriers and regularly transported large quantities of heroin to Ivan Romero and Ricco Romero in Taos County. Upon receiving the bulk heroin, Ivan Romero and Ricco Romero prepared the heroin for distribution by mixing or “cutting” it with other substances, repackaged it in smaller portions, and distributed it both directly and through a network of other drug dealers. Juanita Romero, 36, of Chamisa, N.M., was one such dealer who distributed heroin in and around Penasco.
In April 2015, law enforcement officers executed a state search warrant at Ivan Romero’s residence where they seized drug paraphernalia, 461 grams of marijuana, 30 grams of hashish, more than 300 grams of heroin, and $64,920 in cash. Ivan Romero was arrested on state charges that day, and Ricco Romero assumed a greater managerial role in the heroin trafficking organization at that time.
Following Ivan Romero’s arrest on April 2, 2015, a state court set his bond at $90,000. Wilma Romero, Ricco Romero and Melissa Romero conspired to launder $90,000 in heroin proceeds to post that bond and secure Ivan Romero’s release from state custody. Ivan Romero soon violated the conditions of his release, was remanded back to state custody and a second bond was set at $150,000. In May 2015, Wilma Romero, Ricco Romero and Melissa Romero again conspired to launder an additional $150,000 in heroin proceeds to post that bond
On June 29, 2015, law enforcement agents executed a federal search warrant at Wilma Romero’s residence. In the course of that search, agents seized approximately 97.5 grams of heroin, a small amount of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, $73,288, and gold coins.
On Nov. 17, 2015 and Dec. 1, 2015, Ricco Romero distributed heroin to an individual working with law enforcement agents. Thereafter, on Dec. 18, 2015, law enforcement agents obtained and executed a federal search warrant at Ricco Romero and Carabajal’s residence and at another residence where Ricco Romero and Carabajal maintained a safe. During those searches, agents seized 96.8 grams of heroin, $70,562 in cash, and two firearms.
Ivan and Ricco Romero’s seven co-defendants have all entered guilty pleas:
- Nicholas Baca, 31, of Cerro, N.M., pled guilty in Feb. 2017, to participating in a heroin trafficking conspiracy, and was sentenced on June 14, 2017, to time served followed by five years of supervised release;
- Juanita Romero, 36, of Chamisa, N.M., pled guilty in Feb. 2017, to participating in a heroin trafficking conspiracy, and was sentenced on June 14, 2017, to time served followed by five years of supervised release;
- Melissa Romero pled guilty in Dec. 2016, to participating in the money laundering conspiracy, and was sentenced on June 14, 2017, to three years of probation;
- Elena Carabajal pled guilty in Jan. 2017, to possession of heroin with intent to distribute, and was sentenced on June 13, 2017, to a year and a day in prison followed by five years of supervised release; and
- Wilma Romero, pled guilty in Jan. 2017, to participating in the money laundering conspiracy and possessing heroin with intent to distribute, and was sentenced on Nov. 9, 2017 to 24 months in prison followed by five years of supervised release.
- Tyler Baker, 36, of Albuquerque, N.M., pled guilty in Oct. 2016 to participating in the heroin trafficking conspiracy;
- Jason Duran. 43, of Albuquerque, pled guilty in Dec. 2017, to participating in the heroin trafficking conspiracy. Under the terms of his plea agreement, Duran will be sentenced to a maximum of 100 months in federal prison.
The investigation leading to the indictment was conducted by the Albuquerque office of the DEA, the HIDTA Region III Drug Task Force, New Mexico State Police, Taos Police Department, Taos County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy S. Vasquez is prosecuting the case as part of the New Mexico Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education (HOPE) Initiative. The HOPE Initiative was launched in January 2015 by the UNM Health Sciences Center and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in response to the national opioid epidemic, which has had a disproportionately devastating impact on New Mexico. Opioid addiction has taken a toll on public safety, public health and the economic viability of our communities. Working in partnership with the DEA, the Bernalillo County Opioid Accountability Initiative, Healing Addiction in our Community (HAC), the Albuquerque Public Schools and other community stakeholders, HOPE’s principal goals are to protect our communities from the dangers associated with heroin and opioid painkillers and reducing the number of opioid-related deaths in New Mexico.
The HOPE Initiative is comprised of five components: (1) prevention and education; (2) treatment; (3) law enforcement; (4) reentry; and (5) strategic planning. HOPE’s law enforcement component is led by the Organized Crime Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the DEA in conjunction with their federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partners. Targeting members of major heroin and opioid trafficking organizations for investigation and prosecution is a priority of the HOPE Initiative. Learn more about the New Mexico HOPE Initiative at http://www.HopeInitiativeNM.org.