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Drug-ring leader sentenced to 16 years

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By AJ Vicens

The ringleader of a multi-state drug-trafficking ring was sentenced to 16 years in prison on April 30, nearly a year after Jeffco authorities announced 23 indictments in the case.

Martin Vega-Belata, 36, pleaded guilty to felony distribution of a controlled substance on Feb. 6. According to prosecutors, Vega-Belata traveled regularly to Phoenix, where he picked up large amounts of cocaine and marijuana imported from Mexico. He then brought the drugs to Colorado, where they were distributed through lower-level dealers in unincorporated Jefferson County, Denver, Westminster, Wheat Ridge, Thornton, Arvada, Aurora, Highlands Ranch and Fort Collins.

The drug ring brought an estimated 50 kilograms of cocaine — roughly 110 pounds — into the Denver area every month, with a street value of more than $4 million.

Jeffco District Attorney Scott Storey, Sheriff Ted Mink and Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Jeffrey Sweetin announced the indictments on June 30, 2008. The indictments were the result of "Operation Shoestring," named to reflect shrinking law enforcement budgets and carried out by the West Metro Drug Task Force.

Other high-level players in the drug ring received similar jail sentences. Juan Aguilar-Martinez, 27, was sentenced to 15 years in prison March 2. Alejandro Banuelos-Serna, 44, got 16 years in prison March 16, and Norma Talabera-Espinoza, 38, was sentenced to 12 years.

"The West Metro Drug Task Force and the DEA did an outstanding job," Storey said. "With these offenders off the street, we have taken a significant step toward reducing drugs coming into our communities."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.