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Hard drugs being trafficked into area, Sheriff’s Office says

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin discusses the presence and threat of hard drugs being trafficked into the community. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Mexican cartels are a major source, according to law enforcement

The presence of methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl in Montezuma County and Colorado has become more common, said Sheriff Steve Nowlin, and threatens the health and safety of the community.

“Cortez has become a hub of drug trafficking and distribution, and it comes from the south. Once it reaches here, it is pipelined to the rest of the state and country,” he said during a drug presentation July 28 at the Montezuma-Cortez High School auditorium. “We are putting this out to the community because what we are dealing with today is endangering every citizen.”

Sheriff Detective Victor Galarza said narcotic investigations in Colorado and across the country often link drug sources to Mexican cartel organizations.

Galarza studies the cartels and teaches classes about their operations to law enforcement and government agencies.

He is from Mexico City and worked for six years as a Mexican diplomat in the U.S. before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. Galarza has a career in law enforcement and has worked for the Sheriff’s Office since 2012.

He described the threats and practices of Mexican cartels, officially known as the Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“They pose the No. 1 threat to the United States and use Colorado as a drug trafficking corridor,” Galarza said.

Meth, heroin and fentanyl are the most common drugs coming into Southwest Colorado, he said, while cocaine, ecstasy and LSD are less common.

China White heroin, which has a higher potency than typical heroin, is known to be in Cortez. (File photo)

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. It was developed for pain management of cancer patients. Counterfeit oxycodone pills are showing up on the street laced with fentanyl.

Cartels used to rely on the importing marijuana to the U.S., Galarza said, but that market dried up when it became legal in many states.

“Their focus has changed, now we see more powerful narcotics,” he said.

This bag of fentanyl was confiscated by the Farmington Police Department. The police department has seen a rise in fentanyl cases, and the hospital has added fentanyl as it's own category in the color-coded patient chart system.

The cartels operate with high-tech, military-like tactics, control large areas of Mexico and are well funded, Galarza said. They use violence and intimidation to protect their interests and territories. Drug manufacturing and trafficking to the U.S. represents a major component of their business model.

Drug busts in Montezuma County and the Western Slope have links to the Sinaloa Cartel and Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, commonly known as CJNG, Galarza said.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, CJNG is one of the most dangerous transnational criminal organizations in the world.

“It is responsible for moving tons of cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl-laced heroin into the United States,” states a June 14 DOJ news release. “CJNG is also a prolific methamphetamine producer and chemical importer, using precursors procured from China and India. CJNG is one of the most powerful Mexican cartels operating within the United States.”

Drug busts with cartel connections have occurred on the Western Slope, including in Cortez and Montrose.

  • In Dec. 2019 and March 2021, 20 people in Montrose County were indicted for suspected drug trafficking involving methamphetamine and heroin, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Investigators told KKCO11News.com the indictments have ties to the cartel.
  • In 2018, after a monthlong investigation, three Cortez residents were arrested and charged with distribution of meth and heroin, and two California residents traveling through Montezuma County were arrested or suspected meth distribution. The large-scale drug operation was suspected to be tied to the Sinaloa cartels, according to local law enforcement.
  • In 2009, nine members of a Montrose cocaine distribution organization were charged with distribution, and were associated with the Sinaloa Cartel, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office news release.

About 30 residents and law enforcement personnel attended the drug presentation. Afterward, the issues of demand for drugs, law enforcement and need for treatment centers and prevention education were discussed.

Coroner George Deavers said overdoses are happening more in the community because of the potency of harder drugs.

More training and funding is needed to help law enforcement combat the problem, said audience member Rebecca Bartlett.

Lack of law enforcement on the Ute Mountain Ute tribe also is a concern for stopping drugs coming into the community, said Ethan Lopez.

The demand for drugs and access to addiction treatment services is an important aspect of the problem and needs to be addressed, Galarza added.

“We concentrate on stopping (drug traffickers) from taking advantage of those who suffer the nightmare of addiction,” Galarza said. “We ask that the community remain informed of the danger lurking, of the poisons that intend our community harm. United we can do better to combat this great danger. Local law enforcement will continue to investigate and bring to justice anyone attempting to bring these poisons into Montezuma County.”

Street terms for narcotics also were explained. “Glass,” “crystal” and “clear” are used for methamphetamines. Doses of fentanyl are called “chicklets,” counterfeit prescription medications are called “blues” and a combination of fentanyl and heroin is called “black death.”