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A photo distributed by the Grand Junction Police Department shows counterfeit fentanyl pills that look like 30mg oxycodone.

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.

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. 

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...