Eagle County not alone in major interstate drug busts

Drug seizures up across the board, law enforcement officials say

Over the past two months, Eagle County has seen a string of large drug busts by GRANITE, the Gore Range Narcotics Interdiction Team, along the county’s busiest link to the rest of the world: Interstate 70.

GRANITE, formed in 2016, is a partnership between the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and Vail and Avon police departments. It works on a variety of illegal drug distribution cases in the county and with state and federal law enforcement partners.

Lately, its drug seizures on and along I-70 have been grabbing headlines.

“In the last five years, interdiction has always been a primary focus of ours,” said Vail Police Commander Ryan Kenney. “There are constantly narcotics being trafficked on I-70 through our county.”

Since mid-March, drug seizures along the interstate in Eagle County have totaled nearly 85 pounds of methamphetamine, heroin, oxycodone or fentanyl — the latter a powerful synthetic opioid being blamed for a significant increase in overdoses in many parts of the country, including Colorado.

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On St. Patrick’s Day, a minor league baseball player from Arizona was stopped for speeding and found to have methamphetamine and oxycodone pills in a Chicago Cubs duffel bag. A couple weeks later, on April Fool’s Day, two Arizona men stopped for speeding were found to be trafficking methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl. In late April, a California man stopped for speeding was found to have fentanyl pills hidden under a spare tire in his car’s trunk.

Last week, a Commerce City couple was arrested after a domestic dispute disrupted their drive home from California, and police found them transporting a large amount of methamphetamine and fentanyl.

Eagle County Sheriff James Van Beek said he hasn’t seen such a large number of seizures in such a short time on the local stretch of interstate — at least not since he’s been in office.

“People can die easily from this, people have. We’ve been blessed to not have a whole lot here in our area, but it’s not hard to look around and see entire communities being totally destroyed because of this,” Van Beek said of the drugs being seized. “If we’re hitting this much, how much has gotten through and gotten out to other communities around the U.S.?”

Probably a lot, according to the best guess of the Drug Enforcement Administration. By one Grand Junction agent’s estimate, tons of meth and heroin and hundreds of thousands of fentanyl pills are making it to Denver each year, with cartels smuggling the drugs from Mexico north into California and Arizona, and then east to Salt Lake City and Denver.

Interstate 70 is one of their major shipping routes — with drugs generally heading east and money heading back west, according to the DEA. Once the drugs arrive in Denver, they are split up for sale or distributed farther east.

“Just like for the airlines, Denver is kind of a hub for drug trafficking,” said Steve Kotecki spokesman for the Denver field division of DEA.

DEA is seeing increases in drug seizures across the board, particularly fentanyl. Seizures at the southwest border have been roughly doubling every year for four years, and the number and size of seizures has also been increasing in Colorado, Kotecki said.

“Talking to one of our field agents, he said five years ago, doing a seizure of 10,000 or 15,000 fentanyl pills would be a significant seizure … Now it happens every Tuesday or Thursday,” Kotecki said.

The larger, more frequent volumes are being noticed, with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies all working to not only stem the flow of drugs, but bust their distribution rings.

In February, state and federal authorities announced the dismantling of a drug distribution and money laundering ring with cells in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas, following two years of investigation. Sixty-four people were charged with transporting drugs from Mexico into Colorado, and authorities seized 77,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl, 250 pounds of methamphetamine, 60 pounds of heroin, 8 kilograms of cocaine, weapons, vehicles and $931,000 in cash.

Still, the drugs keep coming.

“It’s definitely on the rise from what I’m seeing,” said Captain Bill Barkley, of the Colorado State Patrol’s Smuggling and Trafficking Interdiction Section. “It seems like in the last four to five months, the flood gate has opened.”

The state patrol has already seized more drugs and cash this year than it did all of last year, Barkley said. Recently, it seized 150 pounds of methamphetamine on Interstate 70 near the Eisenhower Tunnel, believed to belong to the Sinaloa cartel and be on its way to a stash house in Denver.

Some of the drivers may not know what they’re hauling, while others may be facing cartel threats to themselves or their families, Barkley said. Others still are more willing participants.

State patrol is seeing more vehicles with concealed compartments as well. It has specialized equipment to look into gas tanks and to x-ray parts of vehicles to detect drugs, cash or weapons.

One concern is troopers are finding more weapons with narcotics loads, and suspected cartel “enforcers” driving shipments. A few months ago, troopers apprehended a man who ran when a K-9 unit was called. On his phone were photos of him standing next to meth labs in Mexico with an AK-47, according to Barkley.

“Almost every day one of our officers in our unit makes a seizure. Yesterday we pulled 20 pounds of heroin on I-25, and a currency seizure in a trapped-out vehicle, about $400,000,” Barkley said.

Colorado State Patrol is working closely with local law enforcement units like GRANITE as well as with DEA, FBI and Homeland Security Investigations to intercept drug shipments and keep them from reaching their destinations, but also to try to coordinate controlled deliveries to take down distribution rings and investigate cases back to their source beyond Colorado’s borders.

“I think every federal and state or local agency is making a combined effort to dismantle drug trafficking organizations and dedicating resources,” Barkley said. “It’s coming through day and night, seven days a week.”

While large loads of drugs are being shipped on the local interstate, and Eagle County may be seeing an uptick in local methamphetamine use and possession, Van Beek said the area has so far generally avoided the devastating problems fentanyl and counterfeit opioids are having in other parts of the country and state.

Kenney said he agreed.

“It’s still coming from outside the county, it’s still a problem, but thankfully, for our county, we haven’t seen that gripping heroin, fentanyl, meth problem that other parts of the country have seen,” he said. “We’re really trying hard to keep it that way.”

Eagle County has, however, been seeing increases in some drug-related property crimes, Van Beek and Kenney said.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser describes the fentanyl situation as “dire,” with drug overdoses and deaths up substantially in Denver and across many parts of the state. It’s a situation that has been building up for several years and will require continued coordination and leadership on multiple levels, including both law enforcement and addiction treatment services, he said.

While authorities have been working to curb prescription opioid abuse, reducing the amount of opioids and the lengths of time that doctors can prescribe them for, opioid addiction issues have worsened during the pandemic, Weiser said.

The cartels have been more than willing to supply counterfeit pills made with fentanyl.

“It’s very dangerous,” Weiser said. “The dosing is unreliable and inconsistent, and people taking those pills are more likely to be at risk of overdoses and death.”

Kotecki, with the DEA, said its testing has found nearly a quarter of the counterfeit oxycodone pills have enough fentanyl in them to potentially kill to a person, with some pills stronger and other pills weaker due to the lack of manufacturing consistency.

“There’s not even such a thing as a good batch or a bad batch, it’s so inconsistent,” Kotecki said. “It’s really dangerous. It’s like playing Russian roulette with a four-cylinder revolver.”

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