One of two Mesa County men caught last year in an extensive illegal marijuana growing operation on two islands in the Colorado River was sentenced to nearly five years in prison on Monday.
Santos Ramirez-Alvarez was arrested in September, along with his cousin, Santos Ramirez-Carrillo, in a sting by local law enforcement and federal agents after they spent months surveying the growing operation on the islands in the river near De Beque. Ramirez-Carrillo was sentenced to five years in prison in July. Law enforcement said they recovered 9,156 marijuana plants in the raid.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger sentenced Ramirez-Alvarez to 57 months in prison. She also ordered him to spend an additional three years on supervised release, though she acknowledged he likely will be deported back to Mexico after serving his prison sentence.
Krieger did not impose a fine of $15,000 in restitution after learning from Ramirez-Alvarez' federal public defender, Matthew Belcher, that his client would not be able to pay the fine.
Ramirez-Alvarez entered the U.S. illegally and originally was in search of construction work in Denver, Belcher said.
When he wasn't able to find work as an immigrant living in the country illegally, Belcher said his client accepted an offer to grow, in Belcher's words, "crops" — calling on his decades of agriculture work since the age of 6 in Mexico.
Ramirez did not plant the seeds or grow the marijuana, Belcher said. "It appears that his role was to be a day laborer," he said.
Ramirez-Alvarez had no prior criminal history and had not illegally crossed into the U.S. before, Belcher said.
Belcher said his client previously admitted to law enforcement he knew growing marijuana was illegal, though growing and consuming small amounts of marijuana is legal for adults in Colorado.
His client probably wouldn't attempt to cross into the U.S. illegally again after his prison sentence because all of his family lives in Mexico, Belcher said.
"I would like to give an apology to my family because I failed them," Ramirez-Alvarez said through an interpreter. "I apologize to everyone here. I know what I did was wrong."