20 nabbed in Leadville drug bust
LEADVILLE – “We can’t get all the drugs out of Lake County, but we can sure make it inconvenient,” said Sheriff Ed Holte after an eight-month drug investigation that culminated last week in the arrests of 20 Leadville residents.
“We bought it in nearly every bar in town, and if we can verify that business owners or homeowners know it’s going on, we can legally seize their business or home,” Holte said.
These sobering words came on the heels of Lake County’s largest drug roundup in recent history, in which 20 people were arrested and a significant quantity of cocaine confiscated, along with several firearms and other drugs.
The arrests took place last Wednesday, and involved local law enforcement officers and 29 federal agents from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Agency. The Board of Lake County Commissioners contributed financially to the cause.
Despite the recent operation, expected only to make a dent in the surface of the area’s drug trade, there remains no shortage of cocaine in Lake County. Some of the product tested at up to 74 percent purity.
One undercover officer who participated in the investigation said he bought the drug at all but one local bar, where he didn’t even attempt to make a purchase. He also obtained cocaine at each of the area’s trailer parks.
“Lots of people who are buying cocaine are dealing to support their own habits,” he added as he surveyed the drugs snared during the operation. “It goes from the unemployed into all walks of life. Drugs are bought and sold by anyone. Drugs are not prejudiced or proud. What you see here probably represents the lives of two to five people.”
The number he referred to represents not only the adults who die as a result of the manufacture, transport and use of the drug, but children as well. The agent said it’s not uncommon for infants on the Mexican side of the southern U.S. border to be killed, have their internal organs removed and replaced with a kilogram of cocaine.
Wrapped in a blanket and with a pacifier in its mouth, the corpse in the arms of the “mother” then becomes the vehicle used to carry the drug into the United States and on to dope-hungry municipalities such as Leadville.
Such grim practices make the drug trade in Lake County both possible and profitable. Following the dismantling of more than 20 marijuana cultivating operations, numerous arrests and the confiscation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in drugs and growing equipment in the last three years, Holte decided the time was right to move on the local cocaine trade.
The department executed two search warrants and received permission from another owner to enter and search a property. It included homes in Mountain View, San Isabel and Lake Fork mobile home parks. Warrants were issued for 15 individuals, four of which are still outstanding. Customs and Immigration agents netted seven people for immigration violations. One of the unfulfilled warrants comes from a federal district court.
More than a pound of cocaine, some marijuana and methamphetamine were netted in the operation.
Currently, an ounce of cocaine on the Leadville market brings between $700 and $1,100. It is supplied through a hierarchy of common street dealers, sellers who supply the drug but seldom use it, and others who sell cocaine in bulk quantities. Last week’s sweep netted street sellers and mid-level dealers, one of whom reportedly spent nine years working in Mexican law enforcement agencies.
While pleased with the timeliness and outcome of the operation, Holte said high profit margins and the abuser’s need for cocaine outweigh the possible penalties of drug use. It’s certain that drug trafficking will continue unabated in the Leadville area, he added.
“We made a dent, but we haven’t won the war. This is only the tip of the iceberg. We will see a dip in activity and the sellers will be very cautious for a while, but the ones we took down will be replaced. It’s in Eagle and Summit Counties and there’s too much money to be made in it, so it’s not going to go away.”
Holte urges area residents to be aware of suspicious activity in their neighborhoods, especially when it involves large volumes of traffic and visitors who stay a very short time. Other out-of-the-ordinary activity could also indicate the presence or manufacture of drugs.
“If people see something suspicious, call us,” the sheriff said. “We can’t be everywhere, but the more information and involvement we can get from the community, the faster we can meet our goals.”