A Mile High and Rising

The drug trade in Denver and the surrounding area is getting worse -- much worse.

Lieutenant Kurt Williams likes the way things used to be. As a career narc for the Denver Police Department, he used to be a member of the unofficial drug-cop association known as the Kilo Club. The club was the cops' way to identify drug-enforcement superstars. If an officer could make an arrest that netted at least a kilo, it was a career-maker. "That was a big deal, a kilo," Williams chuckles. "Now? I have never seen more drugs. It's just amazing, and it's growing and growing and growing."

If single-kilo seizures were once the gauge of an officer's potential, it's no wonder Williams has made his way to the top of the Front Range Task Force, one of the many drug task forces in the Denver area. "Last year we did about forty pounds of methamphetamines and seized $350,000 in cash in one case," Williams says. The case -- one of the DPD's largest in 1998 -- was "the impetus for us to start the Front Range Task Force," he adds.

Busts like the meth shakedown aren't unusual anymore in Colorado, however. The state ranks fourth in the nation for marijuana use by its citizens, and drug-related deaths have increased by 250 percent in the past five years, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). And a February 1999 report issued by the Colorado Department of Public Safety, titled "Crime in Colorado," noted that drug crime in Colorado increased nearly 195 percent between 1995 and 1997.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation's annual report shows that Denver alone had 5,580 drug arrests last year -- nearly half of all Denver Police Department arrests. (Colorado Springs was a distant second, with 1,560 drug busts; Aurora came in third with 1,226.) The DPD seized $10 million worth of drugs, $2 million in drug money and $600,000 worth of property.

Drug-related convictions in Denver increased by 105 percent between 1993 and 1995, according to a recent evaluation of the Denver Drug Court. And statistics compiled by the National Institute of Justice show that Denver leads major cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with a higher percentage of youth offenders who test positive for drugs; the city also ranked third for marijuana and cocaine use by youth offenders.

These numbers would seem to contradict Mayor Wellington Webb, who recently boasted that Denver's crime rate has dropped in "every single crime category" based on state figures -- except for the fact that drug crimes aren't included in crime statistics by the FBI, the CBI or the Colorado Department of Public Safety.

"It seems like an oxymoron," says G. Edward Wensuc, research manager for the CDPS's office of research and statistics, which authored the drug-court evaluation and the "Crime in Colorado" study. "Crime is going down, generally speaking. But it's not fair to say that all crime is going down equally."

Drug crimes are so rampant in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West, in fact, that the federal government stepped in two years ago with $3 million and a nasty federal designation that grouped ten of the state's counties -- Adams, Arapahoe, Denver, Douglas, Eagle, El Paso, Garfield, Jefferson, La Plata and Mesa -- and eight in Wyoming and Utah into a region known as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The Rocky Mountain HIDTA is one of twenty in the country, including Miami, New York, Houston, and Los Angeles.

"Colorado applied in 1996, and lo and behold, we became a HIDTA," says Gary Hillberry, chairman of the Rocky Mountain HIDTA executive board and a special agent with the U.S. Customs Service -- one of 130 agencies involved in the project. "It was initially set up to bring state, local and federal agencies together."

HIDTA has $187,777,000 budgeted for fiscal year 2000, including $8.5 million for the Rocky Mountain program. Earning the money -- and the designation -- requires that an area meet several prerequisites. It must prove that it is used as a center of drug production, manufacturing, importation and distribution; it must show that drug activity in the area has a harmful impact on other parts of the country; and it must prove that it needs federal resources.

Law-enforcement officials and legislators had no problem convincing the federal government that Colorado had a big problem. HIDTA officers made 2,944 drug arrests in 1998, seized 16,572 pounds of marijuana, 480 pounds of meth, 485 pounds of cocaine, 18 pounds of heroin, 18,000 dosage units of hallucinogens and 1,836 pounds of pharmaceuticals, and confiscated 573 weapons and $9 million in assets as part of the busts.

"It was a shock to come out here and see that Denver has all the big-city problems of a place like Los Angeles," says Thomas Gorman, who worked for the California Narcotics Bureau before becoming the director of Rocky Mountain HIDTA.

HIDTA numbers also show that 213 loads of drugs were intercepted on their way into the area -- a statistic that convinced the ONDCP, which recommends HIDTA designations to Congress, that the Rocky Mountain region is a major entry point for drugs coming into the country.

The federal government says that two-thirds of the cocaine on Denver's streets came through Mexico. The reason Denver is such a hot spot is that law enforcement has come down so hard in some of the older points of entry, such as Los Angeles and Houston, Gorman says. "The biggest threat for the metro-Denver area are the gangs and the foothold that the Mexican national traffickers are trying to establish," he says.

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