Law enforcement officials arrested six suspects, raided 13 homes and seized more than 1,000 marijuana plants and 90 pounds of cultivated product Wednesday after a monthslong investigation into a drug trafficking ring in Mesa County.
Starting at 6 a.m. Wednesday, nearly 200 law enforcement personnel from local, state and federal agencies served search warrants at 13 residences across Mesa County, including Glade Park, Grand Junction, Clifton and Fruita.
Martin Acosta, 50, Armando Hernandez, 27, Armando Bandomo, 51, Yoan Esquarosa-Aguila, 40, George Albino Gonzales, 71, and Alvaro Gonzalez-Molina, 43, were arrested on suspicion of intent to distribute marijuana, possession with intent to manufacture marijuana and cultivation of marijuana.
More arrests in the case are likely, said Colorado Bureau of Investigation Director John Camper, and more charges could be added.
Camper praised the cooperation between law enforcement agencies in the case.
"This operation sends a message to anyone thinking of setting up an illegal grow that that's not a good idea," he said.
CBI agents were contacted by the Drug Enforcement Administration in November about potential illegal marijuana grows in Glade Park and Clifton, according to a search warrant.
An investigation into those properties, including surveillance, GPS tracking and reviews of electricity usage, led agents to 10 more properties connected with the drug trafficking organization, according to the warrant.
The six people arrested are Cuban nationals with ties to Florida, Camper said.
Most of the properties are multi-acre parcels with a home and some kind of outbuilding. In most cases, electricity use at those properties was 10 to 30 times what it should be, indicating grow lights being run almost constantly, according to the warrant.
When the operation started at 7 a.m., the command post in a CBI conference room was "a little louder than I'd like it to be," said Mesa County Undersheriff Todd Rowell.
From the command post, 30 law enforcement and local agency officials coordinated as four SWAT teams secured 13 residences and officers searched them for evidence.
At one point, Rowell said, a SWAT team held off on entering a residence until after a school bus picked up children waiting at a nearby bus stop.
The command post walls were covered with maps of Mesa County, a web of pictures of suspects and people connected to them. A livestream of one of the properties ran on a large screen.
Rowell said officials planned for the operation not to go well, because even if there was a three-hour barricade at one house, 12 others still needed to be secured.
But it did go well, Rowell said, with most of the homes secured by 10 a.m. and agents completing searches and seizures by early afternoon.
No schools or neighborhoods were placed on lockdown or shelter-in-place during the operation.
The stucco house at 451 E. Scenic Drive was quiet by 8 a.m. as law enforcement officials piled uprooted marijuana plants and grow lights in the gravel driveway. A SWAT team had come and gone.
A neighbor stood behind a fence at a house across the street, drinking coffee in a bathrobe and watching the pile of marijuana plants grow as officers brought more outside.
"I guess that's one use for the German Shepherd they never walked," he said.
The skunk-like smell wafted across the street and officers crammed the plants into large tan bags for transport. After investigators take samples of the plants and product, it will be burned in an incinerator on Glade Park.
Officials were plagued by mud at four properties clustered near C ½ and 29 roads. At 355 29 Road, a van transporting two suspects got stuck in the mud, one of its back wheels sunk so deep it tilted upward until a tow truck arrived to pull it out.
Down the road, agents wearing breathing masks removed armsful of marijuana plants from a white tractor trailer parked behind the tan doublewide mobile home. One house down, a dozen cows looked on as agents unloaded white grow lights from a shed into a rented U-Haul trailer.
Illegal marijuana grows like this are a trend statewide, Camper said, not just in Mesa County.
Acosta, Hernandez, Bandomo, Esquarosa-Aguila, Albino Gonzales and Gonzalez-Molina will appear in court today, according to District Attorney Dan Rubinstein.