For Immediate Release
Thursday, February 23, 2017
, United States Attorney
Damon P. Martinez
Contact: Elizabeth M. Martinez
Eighth Member of Taos County-Based Heroin Trafficking and Money Laundering Ring Enters Guilty Plea
Phoenix Field Division
ALBUQUERQUE – Juanita Romero, 35, of Taos County, N.M., entered a guilty plea in federal court in Albuquerque, N.M., to a heroin trafficking charge. Juanita Romero is one of nine defendants charged with heroin trafficking and money laundering offenses as the result of a 15-month DEA-led multi-agency investigation into a heroin trafficking organization led by Ivan Romero, 40.
Juanita Romero is the eighth defendant to enter a guilty plea. Under the terms of her plea agreement, Juanita Romero faces up to 33 months in federal prison followed by a term of supervised release to be determined by the court.
Juanita Romero and seven co-defendants initially were charged with heroin trafficking and money laundering offenses in an eight-count indictment filed in Dec. 2015. The indictment was superseded in Feb. 2016 to add Elena Carabajal, 26, as a ninth defendant and five additional charges. The superseding indictment charged Juanita Romero, Ivan Romero, and seven other defendants with conspiring to distribute heroin from at least June 2012 through Dec. 2015. It also charged Ivan Romero, Ricco Romero, 29, Melissa Romero, 37, and Wilma Romero, 66, with conspiring to launder heroin trafficking proceeds. The superseding indictment also included substantive heroin trafficking charges against specific defendants as well as provisions seeking forfeiture to the United States of any and all assets and property derived, either directly or indirectly, from proceeds obtained from the criminal activities charged.
During today’s proceedings, Juanita Romero pled guilty to a felony information charging her with conspiracy to distribute heroin. In entering the guilty plea, Juanita Romero admitted that in late 2014, she began obtaining heroin from Ivan Romero on a daily basis to sell to others in and around Penasco, N.M. Juanita Romero admitted that Ivan Romero allowed her to keep a small amount of heroin daily for her personal use. Juanita Romero acknowledged distributing between 100 grams and 400 grams of heroin during the period in which she participated in the conspiracy.
Seven of Juanita Romero’s co-defendants previously have entered guilty pleas in the case:
- On Dec. 5, 2016, Ivan Romero pled guilty to Counts 1 and 2 of the superseding indictment, charging him with participating in a heroin trafficking conspiracy and a money laundering conspiracy.
- Ricco Romero also pled guilty on Dec. 5, 2016, to participating in the heroin trafficking conspiracy and the money laundering conspiracy, and to possessing firearms in furtherance of his drug trafficking activities.
- Melissa Romero entered a guilty plea on Dec. 8, 2016, to Count 2 of the superseding indictment, charging her with participating in the money laundering conspiracy.
- Tyler Baker, 45, of Taos County, N.M., entered a guilty plea in October 2016 to participating in the heroin trafficking conspiracy.
- Elena Carabajal entered a guilty plea on Jan. 4, 2017, to possession of heroin with intent to distribute.
- Wilma Romero entered a guilty plea on Jan. 5, 2017, to participating in the money laundering conspiracy and possessing heroin with intent to distribute.
- Nicholas Baca entered a guilty plea on Feb. 7, 2017, to participating in a heroin trafficking conspiracy.
According to the admissions contained in the plea agreements of the defendants who have entered guilty pleas as well as other court filings, Ivan Romero was the leader of a heroin trafficking organization based in Taos County. Ivan Romero and his brother Ricco Romero were responsible for purchasing quantities of heroin from suppliers in Albuquerque and Los Lunas, N.M. Other members of the organization acted as couriers and regularly transported large quantities of heroin to Ivan Romero and Ricco Romero in Taos County. Upon receiving the bulk heroin, Ivan Romero and Ricco Romero prepared the heroin for distribution by mixing or “cutting” it with other substances, repackaged it in smaller portions, and distributed it both directly and through a network of other drug dealers. Juanita Romero was one such dealer who distributed heroin in and around Penasco.
In April 2015, law enforcement officers executed a state search warrant at Ivan Romero’s residence where 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 arrested on state charges that day, and Ricco Romero subsequently assumed a greater managerial role in the heroin trafficking organization at that time.
Following Ivan Romero’s arrest on April 2, 2015, a state court set his bond at $90,000. Wilma Romero, Ricco Romero and Melissa Romero conspired to launder $90,000 in heroin proceeds to post that bond and secure Ivan Romero’s release from state custody. Ivan Romero soon violated the conditions of his release, was remanded back to state custody and a second bond was set at $150,000. In May 2015, Wilma Romero, Ricco Romero and Melissa Romero again conspired to launder an additional $150,000 in heroin proceeds to post that bond
On June 29, 2015, law enforcement agents executed a federal search warrant at Wilma Romero’s residence. In the course of that search, agents seized approximately 97.5 grams of heroin, a small amount of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, $73,288 and gold coins.
On Nov. 17, 2015 and Dec. 1, 2015, Ricco Romero distributed heroin to an individual working with law enforcement agents. Thereafter, on Dec. 18, 2015, law enforcement agents obtained and executed a federal search warrant at Ricco Romero and Carabajal’s residence and at another residence as well as at another residence where Ricco Romero and Carabajal maintained a safe. During those searches, agents seized 96.8 grams of heroin, $70,562 in cash, and two firearms.
If the plea agreements are accepted by the court: Ivan Romero will be sentenced to a prison term within the range of 120 to 144 months; Ricco Romero will be sentenced to a 120-month prison term; Carabajal will be sentenced to not more than 30 months in prison; Wilma Romero will be sentenced to not more than 24 months in prison; Melissa Romero will be sentenced to a term of probation; and Baca will be sentenced to not more than 33 months in prison. Pursuant to their plea agreements, the defendants have agreed to forfeit $431,870 in heroin proceeds and firearms to the United States.
The investigation leading to the indictment was conducted by the Albuquerque office of the DEA, the HIDTA Region III Drug Task Force, New Mexico State Police, Taos Police Department, Taos County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy S. Vasquez is prosecuting the case as part of the New Mexico Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education (HOPE) Initiative. The HOPE Initiative was launched in January 2015 by the UNM Health Sciences Center and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in response to the national opioid epidemic, which has had a disproportionately devastating impact on New Mexico. Opioid addiction has taken a toll on public safety, public health and the economic viability of our communities. Working in partnership with the DEA, the Bernalillo County Opioid Accountability Initiative, Healing Addiction in our Community (HAC), the Albuquerque Public Schools and other community stakeholders, HOPE’s principal goals are to protect our communities from the dangers associated with heroin and opioid painkillers and reducing the number of opioid-related deaths in New Mexico.
The HOPE Initiative is comprised of five components: (1) prevention and education; (2) treatment; (3) law enforcement; (4) reentry; and (5) strategic planning. HOPE’s law enforcement component is led by the Organized Crime Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the DEA in conjunction with their federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partners. Targeting members of major heroin and opioid trafficking organizations for investigation and prosecution is a priority of the HOPE Initiative.