Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor on Thursday confirmed the involvement of a Mexican drug cartel in Colorado's largest-ever drug raid conducted Wednesday.
"If people don't think (the cartel is) here, they're missing the point," said Taylor. "We've got an issue here, and we need to deal with it."
Taylor said final figures show 13,735 marijuana plants were seized with a street value of $40 million. The bust occurred in the small town of Rye, just five miles from Taylor's home.
Interviews with two men arrested at the scene and information from other agencies, said Taylor, confirm the involvement of a Mexican cartel. He said the men arrested likely were hired to harvest the plants, and another group of men grew and monitored the crop. Four men escaped the raid and have yet to be found or identified.
Taylor said the marijuana, first believed to be on San Isabel National Forest land, actually was on private property adjacent to the forest, and the owner was unaware of the operation. The participants likely believed they were in the forest and chose that location for a specific reason, said Taylor.
"Clandestine growers know the Forest Service is very undermanned as far as their law enforcement is concerned," he said.
Taylor described the operation as sophisticated, with camouflaged equipment and men who managed to avoid arousing suspicion for three years in a small town where strangers usually stand out.
Such illegal activity will become more common, Taylor said, if voters pass Amendment 64 to legalize marijuana this fall. He said passage of the amendment also will put the medical marijuana industry in peril.
"They're afraid that the feds will come in and take away their medicine," he said. "I think that's a valid argument for some individuals. I hope this drug bust opens the eyes of the community."
Taylor said it's unlikely that the cartel has another operation elsewhere in the county.
Rye residents remain stunned by the bust.
"We couldn't believe it when we heard it yesterday," said resident Holly Tittel. "The drug cartel doesn't sound like pleasant people to have in our little town."
Harold Fink, another resident, suggested the cartel likely had some local assistance.
"They'd have to have somebody familiar with the area, wouldn't they?" he asked.