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Crime and Courts

Monthslong drug investigation into Denver-area fentanyl trafficking results in 19 indictments

Counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl are causing a surge in overdose deaths in Colorado. The defendants are accused of selling drugs in Arapahoe, Douglas, Denver and Jefferson counties.

A photo distributed by the Grand Junction Police Department shows counterfeit fentanyl pills that look like 30mg oxycodone.
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Federal and state authorities announced indictments Wednesday against 19 people accused of smuggling drugs from Mexico to Denver, calling it proof of “the alarming trend in counterfeit prescription pills laced with fentanyl flooding our streets.” 

Fentanyl, which is the active ingredient in counterfeit pills made to look like real oxycodone and Xanax, is the leading cause of drug overdose in Colorado. More than 525 people have died from the drug so far this year, according to state health department statistics. 

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said the accused drug traffickers distributed cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl in Arapahoe, Douglas, Denver and Jefferson counties, according to an investigation that began in April. Saul Ramon Rivera-Beltran, 30, of Thornton, coordinated drug shipments and deals from Mexico, authorities said. 

Authorities seized 110,000 counterfeit pills, 11.5 kilograms of cocaine, 28 firearms, three hand grenades and body armor.

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Besides the 19 people named in the indictment, two other defendants were arrested in the drug-distribution ring, which also included illegal weapons. 

John Kellner, district attorney for Douglas, Arapahoe, Elbert and Lincoln counties, said he intends to prosecute the defendants in Douglas County. “These are people who peddle deadly substances,” he said. “And where we find the illegal drug trade, we usually find illegal weapons.”

Counterfeit pills made to look like actual pharmaceuticals are typically manufactured in Mexican garages and warehouses with chemicals shipped from China. The process is not precise — about two in five pills circulating the streets have a lethal dose of fentanyl. 

David Olesky, acting special agent of the DEA’s Denver field office, joined Kellner at a news conference about the bust.

“This investigation demonstrates and corroborates the alarming trend in counterfeit prescription pills laced with fentanyl flooding our streets, as well as the continuing nexus between drug trafficking and violent crime impacting our communities,” he said. 

>> DAY 1: The Colorado Sun spent months and more than $400 gathering autopsy reports in order to learn the scope of the damage caused by fentanyl in Boulder County. The records — and the struggle to obtain them — revealed not only a pervasive fentanyl problem but bureaucratic delays in releasing public information that have left the community struggling to sound the alarm that its young people are dying. >> STORY

>> DAY 2: The lack of an official coordinated effort to warn the community that people were dying from fentanyl has frustrated parents and community activists, who have taken on the task themselves.  >> STORY

>> DAY 3: Parents whose children have died from fentanyl poisoning say they feel like their kids were murdered. Why is it so hard for law officers to trace back to the source of fentanyl and make a homicide case after someone dies from it? >> STORY

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