DENVER (CBS4) - State, federal agents and prosecutors say they have arrested 34 people in a heroin distribution sweep that resulted in 57 state and federal indictments. It was the "largest and most complex heroin bust in the history of the Rocky Mountain region," according to the Colorado Attorney General's Office.
A lot of the drugs ended up being distributed out of Denver's Civic Center area.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and attorney general's office says the abuse of prescription pills -- opiates -- has fueled a heroin explosion now being seeing in Colorado, and youngsters are among the ones using heroin most.
As more people abuse prescription pills, especially opiates, experts say the transition to heroin becomes necessary because it's cheaper and easier to find. Brown heroin can be smoked which makes it easier for a user to hide. There are no needles, no track marks.
The DEA's Operation Chump Change put a big dent into a large drug trafficking group that spanned several states with the ring leaders based in Colorado. Operation Chump Change is an ironic name because the dealers were making hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"(It) might be considered chump change to this organization because they cleared many millions of dollars in selling hard drugs," Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said.
Over wire taps, federal agents would hear the Denver street dealers talk to their bosses in Mexico about their "lunches," which was a code word for various amounts and types of packaged drugs.
"It's a quick and easy, accessible way for the sources of supply to talk to their workers up here and make sure it's a seamless business system," said Agent Rob Saccone with the DEA Strike Force. "They can readily and easily take it out of the bag and give to the customers and move on with their day without law enforcement seeing them."
The poppy fields and heroin labs are in Mexico. Once it was manufactured, the brown heroin came to Denver in passenger cars and through the mail.
DEA agents began seizing 10 and 20 pound loads.
"And literally within a day the organization was yet ordering another 10 or 20 pounds to replace the lost loads," said Kevin Merrill, Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the Denver DEA. "It didn't seem to faze them that much."
Addiction experts say the explosion of heroin use began a few years ago when the drug maker of OxyContin reformulated their pills making it more difficult for people to crush them. And pill shopping is expensive -- one OxyContin pill can cost $80 on the street, but a few days-worth of heroin costs about the same.
In all Authorities seized 273 pounds of brown heroin, 31 pounds of methamphetamine, 25 pounds of cocaine and 25 vehicles.
"We aim to strangle this drug trafficking organization to deprive it from the oxygen it needs to survive -- money," US Attorney John Walsh said.
Law enforcement say heroin is an epidemic in Colorado with overdose deaths increasing 600 percent. In the past five years 500 Coloradans have died from heroin.
Additional Information From The Colorado Attorney General's Office
Names of the indicted:
Julio Estrada a/k/a Yael Osuna Navarro
Pedro Gutierrez-Nunez a/k/a Carlos
Jose Vidal Leon-Penuelas
Raul Estrada-Castillo a/k/a Javier Rios
Jesus Contreras a/k/a Jesse
Heriberto Aceves-Velazquez a/k/a Erick LNU
Eduardo Ruiz-Cisneros a/k/a Lalo
Francisco Villanueva a/k/a Pancho
Oscar Acosta-Estrada a/k/a Danny
Juan Jose Santiago-Rivera
Jaime Medina-Mejia a/k/a Jaime LNU
Jose Noel Villegas-Soto a/k/a Noel LNU
LINK: Read The Indictments
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