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Hello, podcast listeners, my name is Lydia Cacho, host of The Red Note, a new podcast about the story of the femicide along the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Subscribe to the red note right now on Appled podcasts or get the Spanish language version as LANATA Aroha wherever you get your podcasts. And stay tuned to the end of this episode for a special preview of the trailer.
This podcast is intended for mature audiences. Listener discretion is advised.
Hey there and welcome to the syndicate's first bonus episode, an interview with Special Agent Steve Bratten at the Colorado Department of Revenue. Bratton is a numbers guy, the veteran financial investigator who pieced together the syndicate's money laundering tactics. He was on the raid at Tree's apartment in October 2014.
We find in 700000 dollars in a two bedroom apartment stuffed everywhere. I mean, every drawer, every I mean, there is money everywhere. There's unbelievable.
But for almost six months before that, Bratton was hard at work behind the scenes, scrutinizing tax records and following the dark trails of money flowing into and out of the syndicate's coffers.
His analysis supported over a dozen of the criminal charges a grand jury leveled against the syndicate. In other words, Britain's financial sleuthing made up a significant part of the state's legal case. But how did he do it?
During our series, we aired some of Bratton's recollections about taking down the syndicate, but my interview with him went deeper by the time the syndicate popped up on his radar in 2014. He had spent the better part of a decade devising strategies to map out the financial structures of pot trafficking groups in Colorado. It all informed his role in Operation Golden Gopher and his rise to becoming the state's top financial investigator around marijuana crimes.
He says that there was a steep learning curve, though, at the time of Bratton's first case in 2009. He specialized in tax investigations, white collar crimes, but a friend pushed him in a different direction. Michael Melito, one of the state's up and coming prosecutors, the same prosecutor who later take point on the syndicate's case was looking into a pot smuggling group.
Melito asked Bratton if he could dissect the organization's finances. And initially, Bratton remembers feeling reluctant.
So it's kind of funny because, like, I didn't want to be involved with any of this. And Mike got me involved with that case. And he's like, Hey, man. And he goes, like, I don't want to involve this marijuana stuff. As I said, dude, I do financial tax. So I don't want to be involved with all this drug stuff. He's like he's like, no man. He goes, he goes, this case can be really good that you could do like some fun stuff financially.
And, you know, I think it's a terrible thing. And he goes, we really need your help.
And I was like, so I reluctantly helped him.
And then he drug me and a couple of weeks and and I've been doing that's all I've been doing for the last, whatever it's been, seven, eight years, nine years now.
That's all I've been doing. Oh, wow. You've exclusively been doing marijuana investigations since then. Little did you know what that favor was going to mean for you.
Yeah, I and I think, you know, I think we made a difference though.
Made a difference. Because before 2009, when Bratton began honing a number of investigative techniques, he says that a lot of marijuana enforcement in Colorado was haphazard.
Understand that like probably 90 percent of or higher of investigations that are done by your local police are cultivation cases where officers would, you know, go to a house or go to a property. And, hey, I smell marijuana growing like the electrical records. I go on there, they went in there and take the plants down. And I was your general.
Casey's right in electrical records were always a big tip off. Well, yeah. I mean, yeah. And then the smell or, you know, maybe you do a trash run or something like that and see the marijuana and the clippings in the trash or plastic bags for packaging in the trash, you know, that kind of stuff.
But while local cops might bust one grow in a house, basement or sometimes an industrial space, they could miss opportunities to take down larger networks.
Because if we go down and if I go down and knock a couple of girls down in a neighborhood somewhere or something like that, there's going to pop back up someplace else.
I mean, with local law enforcement not really connecting things to those levels just because, like they do occasionally get a home grow or whatever. And sure, they would get that one person. But do you suspect that in many cases they were missing organizations like they were seeing the tree rather than the forest 100 percent.
And and it's not a I wouldn't say as a fault of the you know, to those investigations, those agencies, I just I don't think that they had the the time, the manpower, the resources to be able to do those things.
In many cases, it also made sense to bust an illegal marijuana grow as soon as cops detected one, if anything, because of the uncertainty of finding more, unless you have like a you know, someone who's intimately involved with the criminal operation that you're you know, it's like an informant that you're using. So unless you have that, I mean, it's damn near impossible to sit around and just like surveil and wait and wait and wait because you have no idea what it's going to have.
Right. You know, even in the case of Golden Gopher, I noticed that there were two people pulled over. I think both of them were in Nebraska. That was Antonio or and Ryan Barrow.
And that that happened before really all the dots were dead. And and you had the multiagency effort at that point. Yeah, that's right.
So trying to trying to basically figure out these organizations for domestic marijuana cases.
It's very difficult to see that and also difficult to use resources for surveillance and eyes on the ground if you don't know what's there.
But Melito and Bratton knew there was another way to reveal the size of an illegal marijuana operation, its finances.
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Listen and subscribe to in the Red Clay right now on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts, since 1993, thousands of women have been murdered or disappeared along the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. My name is Lydia Cacho, and I am here to tell you the true story of the femicide. Sing Juarez. Listen and subscribe to the red note right now on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, you can also listen in Spanish. Just search for LANATA rocka in the same podcast app you are listening in now.
Bratton says he improvised at the start his first big marijuana takedown concerned a dispensary called the Silver Lizard.
Like the syndicate, it involved a bunch of close, long, longtime friends, which I love the names to hippie lady, purple guy, Smirnoff Loopier, Big Jeremy Kehm dog and Stoke City.
Yeah, kind of like it's almost like what's what's that movie I'm thinking of like.
Like Reservoir Dogs. Yes, exactly. That's the movie I'm thinking of. Yeah. It's like, it's like, it's like a version.
So but but but in all seriousness, it was a good case, but it was it was fairly simple in nature. A guy named Leon Cisneros on the Silver Lizzard, the pot shop, had a dedicated following. In fact, the cannabis critic at the publication I used to work for who went by the alias William Breathes, reviewed the dispensary and noted that he was extremely impressed by the ice water bubble hash.
But the thing is, Cisneros only sold some of the silver lizard's products over the counter.
Back then, there wasn't a lot of regulation and there wasn't a lot of law enforcement.
So those dudes were, you know, making more money, selling things out the back door, whatever it was.
And they were through the shops because back then your East Coast pricing was probably close. No. Four thousand forty five hundred a pound or something back then.
So, yeah, and it was probably cheaper to import from Colorado than even further out west, like California. Oh, yeah, yeah.
Colorado. Once it once it became once they opened it up and start allowing people to grow out here, it it became California and they didn't have their own distribution stuff. It was a lot easier for people to EVGA 725 from here than it was in California for sure.
The silver lizard guys shipped packages of weed through the United States Postal Service, usually up to two pounds to Massachusetts, Tennessee and 11 other states. And just like the syndicate, some of the silver lizards, most loyal black market customers were college students.
The pot growers ran a lucrative mail order business, clearing thousands of dollars for every special delivery made by the USPS from Colorado to college towns back east. And Bratten says he knows this because of a strategy he deployed. Our investigation started really centering not so much on the cultivation of the drugs, but the flow of the money, the flow of the money is sure of the sale.
So if you can't get you don't have the resources to sit on these dudes for weeks and weeks and weeks, wait for one thing to happen. The easiest thing to do is just watch the money come back.
And like watching what people spent as compared to what they reported to the IRS was.
Probably the biggest thing that we started doing was getting into extreme detail of the financials of the individuals in the organization. So we were mainly focusing on income taxes.
And once Bratton could prove that suspects were earning, investing and spending way more cash than they were showing on paper, he could tie that cash to money laundering.
It simply that when you take proceeds from illegal activity and it could be drug dealer, you could be selling guns, it could be human trafficking, it could be whatever, anything. And you use that money to reinvest into the business. That at that point in time is laundered money.
And so when we went through this, that was a provable charge because we could take those bank records and see where they were going to the marijuana supply stores, where they were going and paying for the electrical or they're paying for rent on these marijuana grow houses that you don't pay for those things. What happened to crop dyes? And so that's that reinvestment to be able to use that money laundering charge.
Still, the investigation was grueling. You know, these cases, they they suck the life out of you. They really do. I mean, there it is a you know, a full time commitment and that you care about it, too.
MELITO As Yeah. Khrais of you telling me about 11:00 p.m. midnight, 1:00 a.m. because as you're putting together these cases.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We don't work like normal hours or whatever. And most of these cases are generally between at a minimum nine and generally a year to year and a half.
The silver lizard investigation lasted nine months, but in August 2012, SWAT teams raided the dispensary and busted 11 people. It was then the largest state led marijuana bust since voters legalized medical pot in 2000. The ensuing grand jury indictment listed 59 separate charges, which the state prosecutor Melito elaborately spelled out in narrative detail. Bratton had to admit, despite his initial reluctance, he was hooked on marijuana cases. True features the often weird but always true stories of strange events and unforgettable moments.
Each episode explores unusual, obscure, sometimes funny, sometimes creepy stories, stories that are so bizarre that you won't believe that the real. But they are because, yeah, they're true.
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Find weekly episodes of Boomtown wherever you get your podcasts. The following year, Brandon Melito teamed up again and Bradin added even more investigative tools to his belt. And that was the case with Connie Hoskins was a dispensary owner who owned it was called Mary Jane's or something like that.
The dispensary was actually called Jane Medical's. I mean, and it was it was blatant, like they had the store right off of Colfax and they. An area in the back that wasn't hammered or anything and dudes from Texas all day long just coming up and pulling out of that store from the parking lot, it was it was I mean, pounds and pounds and pounds going down Texas.
In this case, Bratten found an argument to draw up tax evasion charges.
He told me that when Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, the state added extra fees for pot called excise taxes, similar to the taxes many states make you pay for alcohol or gasoline. So Bratten nailed it, the pot trafficker's for avoiding the new taxes.
So the tax evasion cases that we generally started doing once retail happened were all associated with excise tax. Now that makes our cases from a tax perspective and the attorney general's office ability to prosecute a hell of a lot easier.
Because now when I look at bank records or, you know, all the various different things that I do to be able to trace money as soon as I start seeing cash coming back in, that's evidence.
The sale, which is then attributed to the excise tax.
But more importantly, in what Bratton considers the critical development before he started looking into the syndicate, he and the state's attorney general's office worked with federal authorities to seize assets from the accused drug traffickers, working in conjunction with the DEA, who then put us in contact with the US attorney's office and specifically their forfeiture section.
That is when the cases started becoming full circle and we truly started dismantling and taking away the organization's ability to operate was by taking away their financial resources, cash properties, bank accounts, cars. All of it is fair game for civil asset forfeiture. If investigators can reasonably argue they're tied to drug money and by having the feds step in and seize property, individuals accused of trafficking, even if they post bail and get out of jail, find themselves without the means of sustaining a large illegal operation.
That's exactly what happened with the syndicate, but also what happened when the hammer came down on Jane Medical's. In June 2013, a state grand jury returned a 71 count indictment. That time in just two years, Bratten Melito and their marijuana dream team had moved miles beyond the isolated, piecemeal pot busts that local cops had been carrying out. The strategies have allowed Colorado authorities to map out, then dismantle entire drug trafficking organizations all at once. It's not perfect.
I mean, there's still plenty of organizations that are growing weed and profiting from it. But we did a pretty good job of going after some, you know, a handful of the organizations that we had evidence of and making a public statement as far as law enforcement now, which is, I think probably the biggest impact. Not talking to Chris shots about this.
The other day, the Denver Police Department's lead detective on the syndicate case, Chris, I said, man, I said, look at that.
I said back in the day it was like two of us circuitously. There's nobody. And we couldn't get help. And we didn't have anybody helping us. Even back when we were done to this case, I said, dude, I said the best thing we can possibly do is to do these criminal cases and make them public. I said I said, because if we do these things right, which we did do them right, I said maybe the local law enforcement in different places will be like, hey, and show them a road map, say, here, here's how you do these things.
I say maybe we can get people start doing cases again. And so that is what did happen. The other agencies were like, holy crap, what are you guys doing? How are you guys doing that?
Bratton felt happy to take their calls and share his tips.
I think this is a city that is the best thing that we could possibly done, because just like anything else, you can only do so much by yourself today, Bratton says a local district attorneys and police departments are modeling what he and Melito devised at the state level upon discovering an illegal marijuana grow. If there's suspicion it's part of a large network, hold off. Don't storm one location before seeing if it's tied to something bigger. Sit back, analyze the flow of money and chart out the operatives to see if you might take down a sophisticated trafficking ring.
Bratton learned all those lessons right before the syndicate came into his crosshairs.
So once we had, like, that full team set up where you had the DEA and their federal resources, the U.S. attorney's office doing the forfeiture part, the local Denver P.D. was there surveillance and their street level stuff that they so good at.
And then my abilities to do the money part of it was really it was like it was like a full team.
You know, you had offense, defense, special teams. I'm a football guy. So, you know, you had all you know, all parts of your coaching and everything. Yeah. That's like your dream team. Yeah, it's a team man.
I mean, you know, the kickers is as important as the quarterback.
So Bratten doesn't anticipate the team leaving the field any time soon. So long as there's a marijuana black market, he'll have his work cut out for him as he knows better than anyone.
There is a shit ton of money in this stuff, no doubt about that shit. That was Special Agent Steve Bratten at the Colorado Department of Revenue. And this was the first bonus episode of the Syndicate. We've got at least one more coming to your feed soon, so stay tuned. In the meantime, for more about the syndicate, you can check out our website at the syndicate podcast, Dotcom. The syndicate is a co-production of Fox Lip-Sync and Imperative Entertainment executive producer is Jason Hoak, produced and edited by Laura Krantz and Scott Carney, the syndicated Skorton mixed by Louis Weekes.
I'm your host and creator, Chris Walker. And please leave us a review wherever you get your podcast. It really helps more people find out about our show. As promised, here's a special preview of the new podcast, The Red Note, but don't forget, you can listen to episodes right now by subscribing on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here's the trailer we found, Ali, on February 21st, less than 24 hours after she was killed. She was held in captivity for six days. But what really happened? We don't know. My name is Lydia Cacho.
I am a Mexican investigative reporter and activist. Over the last 25 years, hundreds of women and young girls have been murdered along the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Their bodies have demonstrated a savage brutality the way in which they were murdered. Thousands more were disappeared in broad daylight and sold into sexual slavery by the country's organized crime groups. We received a call that my daughter was being sold and prostituted at a place on Juarez Avenue when they raided the place. Unfortunately, my girl wasn't there. Earlier this year, we sent to Mexico based production team to the streets of Juarez to talk to the investigators who hope to catch the perpetrators of these crimes.
This is not some crazy guy who's kidnapping and murdering women. This is something more organized experts who study the causes of the serial murders and we're talking about over 20 years now, and it's kind of the same girls keep disappearing.
And the victims families whose lives were reshaped by tragedy, when it gets dark and I go to bed, I tell God, send me my daughter in a dream.
I want her to tell me what happened. Along the way, our team faced many dangers. What was called the most dangerous city in the world to capture the true story behind a femicide in Juarez, because the perpetrator is the corporations, the perpetrator is the government, the perpetrator is machismo, the perpetrator is poverty. The perpetrator is maquiladoras because of the threats and attempts against my life due to my reporting. I have been on the run for the past year.
But I know this story must be told because the systematic killing of women and girls will never end until we know why it happened and who is responsible. There's a mom who says she wants to burn everything down. Well, I told her I understand because they don't do anything to arrest our daughter's attackers and the real criminals walking the streets as if nothing had happened.
This is the red note. Listen or subscribe on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. The Red Note is available as its own Spanish language podcast to a Senator Roger.