An international cocaine and marijuana ring that allegedly did business at homes in Jefferson County has apparently been torpedoed by the West Metro Drug Task Force.
The large-scale cocaine and marijuana distribution ring is targeted by 34 indictments, according to Jeffco officials and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The investigation began in September 2007 with a street-level buy of cocaine and ended in April with the breakup of a drug ring suspected of bringing 50 kilograms of cocaine into the Denver area each month, with a street value of $4 million. Over the course of the investigation, the task force and DEA agents seized nearly 6 kilograms of cocaine — with a street value of $500,000 — 25 pounds of marijuana, more than $500,000 in U.S. currency and six handguns.
“This case has international allure, weapons seized and half a million in cash seized,” said Jeffrey Sweetin, the agent in charge of the Denver field division of the DEA.
According to the indictment, a man named Martin Vega-Beleta was running the organization, which Jeffco District Attorney Scott Storey said was structured like a corporation. Vega-Beleta’s girlfriend, Norma Yudith Talabera-Espinoza, allegedly served as his lieutenant. Directly below them was Erick Fernando Chaparro-Franco, who is suspected as the drug runner. Vega-Beleta is suspected to be the source of the cocaine, which came from Mexico and went to Phoenix, then on to Denver.
The cocaine would be distributed down the chain from there, with lower levels of the network buying and selling cocaine and marijuana from homes in Highlands Ranch, Wheat Ridge, Arvada, Westminster, Thornton, Denver and Aurora.
“You always hope for those things,” Jeffco Sheriff Ted Mink said when asked if task force members knew that a street-level buy would end up bringing down an elaborate international drug ring.
Of the 34 people indicted, 13 are believed to be illegal immigrants, and 30 of the 34 are in custody. Warrants have been issued for the remaining four. The 34 men and women were indicted on a total of 141 criminal counts.
“We can’t go any higher,” Mink said after a news conference held at the Jeffco DA’s office to announce the indictments.
“Our resources only go so far,” Storey added.
Mink said that Vega-Beleta’s source in Mexico and beyond is not only out of the jurisdiction of the task force, but going after that source would require man hours and resources simply not available.
Mink said that Jeffco is a “corridor” for drugs in general, and that this bust will have an impact on the availability of cocaine in the area, at least for a little while.
“Somebody will do this again,” Mink said. “The incentive is there.”
To highlight a lack of resources in general, the name of the operation that led to the indictments was “Operation Shoestring.” The name reflects “shrinking government budgets,” according to Pam Russell, Storey’s spokesperson.
“Local governments are dealing with shrinking budgets, yet we have this kind of criminal activity to deal with,” Storey said when asked to discuss the political nature of the operation’s name.
The West Metro Drug Task Force is a group made up of agents from the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office, the Jeffco DA’s Office, the police departments of Golden, Arvada, Lakewood and Wheat Ridge, and the DEA. It was formed in 1994 to combat illegal drug and narcotics trade in the west metro area.