DENVER (CBS4) – The Drug Enforcement Administration announced a “major investigation” involving the seizure of 110,000 fentanyl-laced pills in the Denver metro area. At a news conference on Wednesday, the District Attorney’s Office for the 18th Judicial District announced the grand jury indictments of 19 people in connection with a drug-distribution ring crossing several counties — including Arapahoe, Douglas, Denver and Jefferson counties.

“The work of this team has potentially thwarted over 40,000 deaths in our community,” 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said.

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The DEA began its investigation in April 2021. Over the course of 8 months, authorities determined a drug trafficking ring led by Saul Ramon Rivera-Beltran, of Thornton, coordinated drug shipments and deals with a cartel in Mexico. The fentanyl is believed to have been manufactured south of the U.S. border, and smuggled into the U.S. and eventually brought to Colorado.

“DEA lab testing revealed, on average, 2 out of every 5 pills laced with fentanyl contains a potential lethal dose,” said David Olesky, DEA Denver Field Division Acting Special Agent in Charge.

After the indictment announcement, authorities said two others were arrested in connection to the drug trafficking ring. All are facing numerous charges for possession and distribution of illegal drugs, including methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl.

“With 28 firearms seized, multiple hand grenades, high-capacity magazines and several sets of body armor, this organization was preparing for battle,” Olesky said during Wednesday’s news conference.

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The DEA says this fentanyl bust is part of a national crisis. Drug overdose deaths have increased 30% nationwide.

“But, unfortunately here in Colorado, the numbers are higher at a 46% increase of drug overdose deaths,” Keith Weis, Executive Director of Rocky Mountain HIDTA, said.

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Agents said Colorado communities are safer now with the seized drugs and weapons off the streets, but the work is far from over.

“Without a doubt, our law enforcement here today have saved the lives of Coloradans,” Weis said.

Those in custody are being held on a $500,000 bond or greater. However, the drug ring’s alleged leader — Rivera-Beltran — is being held in Arapahoe County on a $1M cash-only bond.

“This investigation is not about the amount of drugs seized or number of people arrested,” said Olesky. “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.”

Kelly Werthmann