AURORA | Federal authorities on Wednesday unsealed a 30-person indictment that outlines the workings of a sophisticated drug cartel that for years was pumping hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine, fentanyl, heroin and cocaine throughout Colorado.
Officials have arrested 24 of the people mentioned in the indictment on a slew of charges, including racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy to distribute various drugs. The remaining indictees are on the lam across U.S. and Mexico.
The leader of the group, Candelaria Vallejo-Gallo, was arrested last week in her Aurora home, according to Dean Phillips, acting special agent in charge at the Denver division of the FBI.
Vallejo-Gallo, who is in her early 40s, faces more than 50 counts, including the rarely levied charge of “continuing a criminal enterprise” or “a drug kingpin charge,” according to local U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn.
During the course of a year-long investigation into Vallejo-Gallo’s group, authorities seized more than 400 pounds of methamphetamine, five pounds of heroin, four pounds of cocaine and about 15,000 pills of fentanyl that had been disguised to look like prescription Oxycodone, officials said.
The masked pills caused elevated concern among federal authorities, Dunn said.
“The influx of fake prescription opioids is a growing and deadly concern for this office and the law enforcement community as a whole,” he said. ” … Had these pills reached the street, thousands of unwitting end users would have been at significant risk of overdose and death as we’ve already seen too much of lately in Colorado.”
Most opioid addicts don’t seek out fentanyl due to the extremely high risk of incurring a fatal overdose, Dunn said. However, groups like Vallejo-Gallo’s are increasingly manufacturing the potent opioid to bump their profit margins by camouflaging it as more sought-after and expensive prescription pills.
“It’s also very cheap to produce in either China or Mexico,” Dunn said. “So it’s often times mixed with other substances … often times inert substances, and then pressed into pill form to look like prescription Oxycodone or other drugs and then sold.”
While conducting a series of arrests across Denver and Aurora Feb. 12, officials also seized large amounts of cash, cars and at least 10 guns, many of which were assault rifles, Phillips said.
A Mexican national who was residing in Aurora illegally, Vallejo-Gallo and her group used overland traffickers and UPS shipments to get drugs to the metroplex, according to Dunn. They then distributed the substances across the state.
“Obviously with the nexus of I-25 and I-70, Colorado seems I think to have a disproportionate share of interstate drug trafficking that flows through our state,” Dunn said. “But make no mistake: In this case, my understanding is the drugs here were actually bound for Colorado. This was an organization that was working here bringing it in from the west coast.”
Several other agencies, including the Aurora Police Department and the criminal investigation branch of the IRS, helped the FBI and prosecutors investigate the local cell of the cartel.
“It’s crucially important to include a financial component in investigations of drug-related crimes,” Amanda Prestegard, acting special agent in charge of IRS Criminal Investigations said. “Greed is a trafficker’s main motivation. Drug kingpins don’t always touch the drugs, but they do always touch the money.”
If convicted Vallejo-Gallo could face 20 years to life in federal prison. The other people indicted on lesser charges could face prison sentences of at least 10 years.
Several of the suspects appeared in federal custody hearings Feb. 19.