COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A frequently used criticism by law enforcement of Colorado's legalized marijuana industry is that it invited dangerous drug cartels into the state, where they operate in black market shadows.

Law enforcement in El Paso, Teller and Pueblo counties say it in news releases when perpetrators are of Cuban or Mexican descent. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, said it in January, alleging "cartels have rushed into Colorado, resulting in 19 cartel operation busts in the last 18 months."

And 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May repeated it to a crowd of community leaders May 1.

"We have cartels from around the world," May said. "You name any South American country, we have it here."

The shock value is immediate, as it conjures images of a city overrun by violence and corruption, mysterious disappearances and the most feared names of the drug world — names like Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, now in U.S. custody, or the late Pablo Escobar of the Colombian Medellin Cartel.

The problem is, that's not an accurate representation of what's happening, at least not in a way that law enforcement agencies have documented with provable data or resolved court cases. Rather than being widespread, the cartel activity appears limited in scope — small factions with possible ties to cartels instead of large, organized operations within the state.

The Drug Enforcement Administration believes there are cartels here, but police agencies have not produced evidence tying any known international drug cartel to the roughly 650 illegal grow operations they say make up the black market in El Paso and Teller counties. "If we had that information, we would share that," Teller County sheriff's spokesman Gregory Couch said.

Instead, they're using the term synonymously with "drug trafficking organization," which could mean anything from two individuals, Colorado natives or otherwise, to any larger group growing more than the legal limit of 12 plants per residence and distributing the weed illegally out of the state.

"What we have a tendency to do is think if there's a Mexican involved in Colorado, they're cartels," said Tim Gorman, director of the federally funded anti-marijuana police organization Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. "Probably not."

DEFINING CARTEL

DEA agent Tim Scott argues strenuously that factions of established cartels, such as the Mexican-based Sinaloa and Beltran-Leyva cartels, are "represented" locally.

The illegal marijuana market is too profitable for them to pass up, he said.

"We're the source state for marijuana and that's kind of like being a source country," Scott said, arguing that weed is to Colorado what cocaine is to Colombia. "(Organizations) are producing it, they're controlling it and they're sending it out all over the world . everyone wants Colorado weed. It's like a brand name."

Of course, 29 other states now have legal medical or recreational marijuana or both.

Mexico's Sinoloa and Beltran-Leyva cartels, as well as some Asian factions, operate in Colorado, mainly out of Denver, according to the DEA's 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment survey. Their "distribution cells . either report directly to (drug organization) leaders in Mexico or indirectly through intermediaries," the report says, adding that perpetrators "often share familial ties with, or can be traced back to, the natal region of leading cartel figures in Mexico."

Family surnames and country of origin of those apprehended are apparently the same standards local law enforcement uses to connect cartels to El Paso County's illegal marijuana grows.

In March, the Teller County Sheriff's Office announced an "Illegal Marijuana Cartel Cell Arrest" following a bust in Divide where deputies seized 78 pounds of weed and arrested two people. The office didn't explain how they made that connection but said both of the people arrested "are Cuban citizens."

Three days earlier, the agency advertised two other busts under the single headline, "Another Illegal Marijuana Cartel Cell Disrupted." This time, they described the perpetrators as "of Cuban or Mexican descent" and "all with ties to Miami, Fla." (As early as 2016 law enforcement have been warning of Cuban citizens moving from Miami to Colorado to establish illegal grows).

In December, Colorado Springs police celebrated recovering 212 pounds of marijuana and a gun from a local home. No arrests were announced, but police said, without elaborating, that they "found evidence suggesting the marijuana is affiliated with a Mexican drug cartel."

Pueblo County sheriff's deputies, who last summer uncovered the second largest grow operation on U.S. Forest Service lands — about 7,400 plants, were even more ambiguous, noting that because four previous grows found in the area "are believed to be connected to a Mexican cartel" the latest one must be, too.

Scott says some grows on national forest lands are branded by the word "Sinaloa" carved into surrounding trees, an indication it might belong to the Sinaloa Cartel. He wouldn't say if the Pueblo bust was one of them.

SHAKY DATA

Law enforcement also attributes rising crime rates to cartel involvement, but evidence for that is not well-documented.

Scott says the DEA has found illegal growers to be involved in kidnapping, torture, home burglaries and armed robberies in Colorado Springs and surrounding areas, but he declined to discuss ongoing cases or provide crime statistics from past cases.

What he and other authorities have provided is anecdotal examples of human trafficking. One example: Drug organizations, mainly Cuban, promise workers money in exchange for producing three consecutive marijuana cycles. But, before that third grow comes to fruition, police say, the organization raids its own grow — stealing the plants and then forcing workers with violence to start over at cycle one.

So even if established cartels are not directly operating in Colorado Springs, Scott says, their methods of exploitation and control are.

Most of the violence is contained within the drug ring, though. It's Cuban on Cuban, which means it's not rampant in the larger community and it's likely not reflected in crime statistics, Scott says. "Criminals typically don't call the cops when something bad happens."

State figures reported by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation show violent crime — including homicide, rape, and robbery — has been rising in Colorado since 2014 (the year recreational marijuana stores opened), but there is no connection in the data as to how many of those crimes were motivated by the use, distribution, production or presence of marijuana.

There's also no statewide database attempting to define the black market, a Gazette analysis recently found.

Even the agencies that say they track "marijuana-related" crimes don't seem to have the data to support their claims of a connection between marijuana and violent crime.

Colorado Springs police, for example, reported eight marijuana-motivated killings in 2016 (five of which stemmed from the same two incidents) and three in 2017, which would seem to suggest a decline (there is no record of drug-related killings prior to 2016). While recently speaking on marijuana's' impact in the county, Police Chief Pete Carey described the drug and the violence he says it invites as "one of the biggest public safety challenges our region is facing today."

When pressed for specifics, the department cited 15 of the 484 reported robberies in 2017 as being directly motivated by marijuana.

Other factors also could contribute to rising crime:

Domestic violence has increased 10 percent in the state since recreational marijuana legalization took effect in 2014, with 18,501 cases reported to CBI in 2016. But no link has connected the rise in reports to the new law. In Colorado Springs, domestic violence consistently accounts for just under 5 percent of call volume, records dating back to 2013 show.

The U.S. Census Bureau said El Paso County was the fastest-growing county along Colorado's Front Range in 2017, noting a population increase of more than 12,000 people. Overall, the county's population is estimated at 699,232 people, close behind Denver with 704,621 people. Crime typically increases in tandem with population.

After a large departure of officers in 2015, the Colorado Springs Police Department was so short-staffed that in 2016 Carey folded specialized units to free up 30 more officers to respond to priority one emergencies.

At the time, the city's response time was more than 14 minutes, well above the goal time of 8 minutes.

Opioid use in the nation has exploded, reaching epidemic levels in some states. While DEA agent Scott says Colorado is "not seeing what you're seeing on the East Coast," the County Coroner's Office reported drug overdoses as the primary or suspected cause of death in 191 of the 902 autopsied deaths in 2017. Heroin was the leading opioid of choice.

ASSESSING THE THREAT

Marijuana also isn't considered the state's main drug threat, according to the National Drug Threat Assessment, the same report which found the cartels represented in Denver.

The Denver division of DEA ranked marijuana as the fourth most dangerous drug in the state, behind methamphetamines, heroin, and prescription drugs. The reason? Meth use, the division said, contributed most — 53.1 percent — to property crime, and heroin use contributed most — 66.3 percent — to violent crime.

Marijuana-fueled property and violent crime accounted for 1.5 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively, the report said.

Nationally, agencies also ranked marijuana low on the threat list, with only 5.6 percent of respondents saying it was their greatest threat. Most agencies ranked heroin as the worst, followed by meth, prescription drugs, fentanyl, then marijuana, cocaine and psychoactive substances.

DEA's Scott says he'd rank marijuana higher in Colorado Springs based on what he sees, though he declined to share how many marijuana cases his office is working.

Last year, the state announced the indictment of 62 people and 12 businesses in Denver and Castle Rock involved in a mammoth marijuana trafficking ring that pretended to be growing weed for sick people but was instead illegally shipping about 100 pounds of the drug to a half-dozen other states and bilking investors, including former NFL players. It is the largest illegal marijuana operation discovered since Colorado voters legalized recreational pot in November, 2012.

Locally, Hoppz' Cropz, a cannabis accessory and gift shop, was shuttered last July and 13 employees were indicted for illegally distributing about 200 pounds of marijuana as free "giveaways" with the purchase of other merchandise.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has said repeatedly that he believes the illicit pot trade is shrinking and "will be largely gone" in a few years, thanks in part to the tough stance by his office. This year, he diverted more cash to law enforcement agencies to fight illegal marijuana cultivation. He's also proposed $1.2 million in funding to allow the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to create an interdiction force that can "parachute in" to rural communities with smaller police forces to bust illegal grows.

Hickenlooper has not said much one way or the other about the possible existence of cartels in the state.

But Scott says that foreign involvement in the county's illegal marijuana grows speaks for itself.

"You didn't have the Cubans, Vietnamese and Laotians here before legalized marijuana," Scott said. "They came here because there was no controls and no regulations, and they established themselves."

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Information from: The Gazette, http://www.gazette.com