Updated March 22 at 11:15 a.m.
A federal judge in Santa Fe sentenced two brothers to about a decade in prison apiece Tuesday morning (March 20) for their role in running one of the most lucrative heroin trafficking networks to operate in Taos County, according to Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Martinez.
Judge Martha Vasquez sentenced Ivan Romero, 41, of El Prado, widely believed to have been at the top of the infamous Romero drug ring, to almost 11 years in prison, followed by a five-year period of supervised release.
Vasquez also sentenced Romero’s brother, Ricco Romero, 28, who helped to oversee the receipt and distribution of large quantities of heroin and methamphetamine, to 10 years in prison, also to be followed by a five-year period of supervised release.
Both men forfeited more than $400,000 in cash and will pay $15,000 in restitution fees to the community as part of their sentencing, Martinez said on Tuesday.
The Romero drug ring was active in Taos County from at least 2012 to December 2015 when it was dismantled by a joint-agency task force backed by the New Mexico High Intensity Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. The force included members of the Taos County Sheriff’s Office, New Mexico State Police, Taos Police Department and Albuquerque offices of the DEA and ATF.
In April 2015, law enforcement executed a search warrant at Ivan Romero’s residence. They seized drug paraphernalia, 461 grams of marijuana, 30 grams of hashish, more than 300 grams of heroin and $64,920 in cash.
Ivan Romero was the first to be arrested, after investigators learned that he and his brother regularly received large quantities of heroin and other drugs that lower-level couriers picked up from suppliers in Los Lunas and Albuquerque. Ivan and Ricco Romero would then mix, or “cut,” the drugs with other substances before distributing packaged narcotics through a network of other drug dealers around Taos County.
A state court set Ivan Romero’s bond at $90,000. Other members of the Romero family conspired to launder heroin proceeds to post the bond.
Romero was released, but was taken back into state custody after he violated the conditions of his release. His bond was raised to $150,000, and his family again conspired to launder money to post the amount, according to federal officials and prior news stories.
In June of that year, agents executed a federal search warrant at Wilma Romero’s residence and discovered 97.5 grams of heroin, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, gold coins and $73,288 in cash.
Law enforcement used an informant as they closed in on the remaining members of the drug ring. On Nov. 17 and Dec. 1 of 2015, Ricco Romero distributed heroin to this individual. Law enforcement executed federal search warrants at Romero’s residence and Elena Carabajal’s residence later that December, recovering another 96.8 grams of heroin, $70,562 in cash and two firearms.
Five other people were swept up in the bust, including two other members of the Romero family, Melissa Romero and Juanita Romero. Several were charged with drug trafficking and money laundering charges, and all had submitted guilty pleas by the end of last year.
While the drug busts were considered to be significant at the time, 8th Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos has since gone on record to note that heroin trafficking has resumed in Taos County.
Numbers kept by state and national health organizations back up this claim.
An estimated 57 Taos County residents have died from opioid overdoses over the past six years, many of them due to heroin, and at more than 20 deaths per 100,000 people, the drug overdose death rate continues to exceed both state and national averages.