A customer walks away from VIP Cannabis at 2949 W. Alameda Ave. in Denver on Nov. 21, 2013. Federal officials raided the shop Thursday.

Fed raids on Colorado marijuana businesses seek ties to Colombian drug cartels

Colorado marijuana businesses raided this week by federal agents are being investigated for a possible connection to Colombian drug cartels, sources told The Denver Post on Friday.

Three sources who have knowledge of the investigation spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the case.

Investigators believe the raided businesses were all “one big operation,” one source said.

On Thursday, federal agents swarmed more than a dozen dispensaries and grow warehouses in Denver, Commerce City and Boulder County, according to sources. At least two homes were also targeted.

Investigators say those targeted in the raids had been actively purchasing area dispensaries and grow warehouses over a sustained period of time, one source said.

A search warrant obtained by The Post included 10 “target subjects” who were owners of businesses or people connected to medical marijuana businesses.

One of the raided dispensaries — VIP Cannabis, in Denver — had applied for state licensing in 2010, but regulators have not approved or rejected it, said Julie Postlethwait, spokeswoman for the state Marijuana Enforcement Division, part of the Department of Revenue.

She declined to give a reason for the three-year wait.

Ninety-six medical marijuana businesses are operating while their license applications are pending with the state, according to state records. At least a dozen of them are connected to the 10 individuals named as targets.

On Thursday, an armed SWAT team raided an Englewood home that is listed as the residence in business records for two targeted subjects, 26-year-old Carlos Solano and Luis F. Uribe.

Solano and Uribe couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

The 5,421-square-foot house, which is assessed at $1.3 million, is about a mile from the home of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

“We didn’t know them,” said one neighbor, who, because of safety concerns, requested not to be identified. “We never saw the people. It was a huge surprise, seeing guys in full SWAT outfits carrying AK-47s. Usually, you see people walking their dogs.”

Federal officials wouldn’t give specific reasons for the raids — which included agents from the U.S. Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service — other than to say more than one of eight federal concerns about marijuana had potentially been violated.

Those concerns include trafficking marijuana outside of states where it has been legalized, money laundering and providing revenue for criminal enterprises, including gangs and cartels.

Another targeted subject is Denver attorney David Furtado, who denied any wrongdoing through his lawyer, Stanley Marks.

“He clearly denies any implication or allegation that he in any way participated in any illegal activity,” Marks said.

State business records identify Furtado as a registered agent — a role often filled by lawyers — for a number of businesses related to medical marijuana.

James “Skip” Wollrab — an attorney for another target, Laszlo Bagi, 48, owner of Swiss Medical in Boulder — said Bagi did nothing wrong and had no connection to other targets. Bagi’s dispensaries and grow warehouses were raided. Wollrab said hundreds of pounds of marijuana worth millions of dollars was confiscated.

Both Solano and Uribe and another one of the targeted subjects, Gerardo Uribe, have been involved in a contentious plan to build a large marijuana greenhouse in eastern Pueblo County, records show.

Pueblo County commissioners in July approved the project on property owned by a company controlled by Gerardo Uribe, GML LLC. Uribe told commissioners he wanted to invest $6 million in the operation, according to The Pueblo Chieftain.

The plan was for Gerardo Uribe’s company to lease space to a Denver dispensary called Metro Cannabis Inc. that would be involved in building the greenhouse. Nothing has been built on the property yet, county officials said Friday.

County Commissioner Sal Pace, who supported the project as a boost to economic development, said Friday the county’s standard criminal-background check on project applicants turned up nothing.

“From my perspective, we only want good actors in Pueblo County, and if these are bad actors, I’m glad they got busted,” Pace said.

Another man listed in a search warrant as a target of Thursday’s raids is 50-year-old Juan Guardarrama, who pleaded guilty earlier this year in Miami in a racketeering case with connections to Colombian and Cuban gangs, according to court records and published reports.

In July 2012, The Miami Herald reported that Guardarrama — who used the street name Tony Montana, after the character in the movie “Scarface” — was arrested on charges that he worked with gangs of Colombian and Cuban-born jewel thieves to sell diamonds that had been forcibly stolen from dealers.

As part of the investigation, Guardarrama, a Cuban immigrant with deep ties to the Miami area but who was living in Denver, asked an undercover police officer to help him distribute 20 pounds of Colorado-grown marijuana in Miami, The Herald reported, citing police records.

Guardarrama also asked the undercover officer to “take out” a business partner in Colorado who had “disrespected” him, The Herald reported.

Guardarrama held a valid medical-marijuana employee license in Colorado beginning in August 2011 and that expired this past August, according to the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division. According to court records, Guardarrama was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the Miami case and began serving his term in March.

Another target subject, Jared Bringhurst, 33, was formerly an owner of VIP Cannabis and other medical marijuana businesses but withdrew as an owner in January, said Postlethwait, of the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division.

Jeremy P. Meyer: 303-954-1367, jpmeyer@ denverpost.com or twitter.com/jpmeyerdpost

This story was first published on DenverPost.com