A Mexican drug cartel used an auto-body repair shop in Colorado Springs as a distribution point for a large-scale marijuana trafficking operation for nearly two years before it was moved out of state, the U.S. Attorney's Office said Wednesday.
One of the alleged drug traffickers, Abraham Friesen-Remple, who was arrested last month, appeared in federal court Tuesday in Denver and was ordered held without bond. He was arrested Aug. 20 at the Santa Teresa Point of Entry in New Mexico.
The other six people allegedly involved in the trafficking of thousands of kilograms of marijuana, including the man who ran the auto body shop, remain on the loose.
Most of them are members of the Mexican Mennonite community and are believed to be outside the United States, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
The group allegedly moved the marijuana by putting it in the gas tanks of cars and then transporting it again inside large farm equipment.
"At the beginning of the conspiracy the vehicles crossed the Mexican border and drove to Colorado Springs, where the marijuana was off-loaded at an auto-body repair shop," the U.S. Attorney's Office said. "Drivers then took the marijuana to various places across the country."
The alleged drug trafficking in Colorado Springs started about January 2011 and ended about November 2012 when Eduardo Tellez-Ponce, who ran the repair shop, was arrested. The U.S. Attorney's Office did not say why Tellez-Ponce was arrested.
Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado, said the marijuana was repackaged at the body shop and distributed to other cities.
"In some cases, the vehicles returned to Mexico with money," he said.
Dorschner said he could not provide the name of the repair shop.
"I can't give it to you because it's not a matter of public record," he said.
After Tellez-Ponce's arrest, the group allegedly moved the marijuana trafficking from Colorado Springs to North Carolina and continued to transport the drugs throughout the United States on trucks carrying farm equipment.
"This case involves smuggling literally tons of marijuana into the United States from Mexico, with Mexican Cartel involvement," U.S. Attorney John Walsh said in a statement.
"International trafficking of drugs, particularly with organized crime involvement, is a top priority of federal law enforcement and the U.S. Attorney's Office," he said. "The fact that this case involves marijuana in no way reduces its status as a high-priority matter, consistent with recent guidance from the Department of Justice on marijuana enforcement issues."
A federal grand jury returned a nine-count indictment in August charging the group with conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana and use of a phone to facilitate drug trafficking, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
In addition to Tellez-Ponce and Friesen-Remple, the others named in the indictment are Ulises Castillo-Meraz, Enrique Harms-Groening, David Loewen, Juan Reimer and Pedro Dyke-Friesen.
Dorschner said he couldn't speculate whether Colorado would see less marijuana trafficking since the legalization of recreational marijuana.
"I can say that recently the Department of Justice issued guidance and that guidance included a number of areas where federal prosecutors should continue to prosecute violations of marijuana trafficking," he said.
"One of those areas is if a cartel is involved. Another one of those areas is if the marijuana has moved in interstate commerce or foreign commerce. In this case, both of those are clear."
Contact Daniel J. Chacon 476-1623