By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - At least 80 people have been arrested in what federal, state and local law enforcement officials on Thursday called the largest drug bust in Colorado history, a sweep that grew out of an investigation of violent bank robberies.
U.S. Attorney John Walsh said 58 pounds of cocaine, 2.2 pounds of crack cocaine and one pound of methamphetamine were seized in the two-year operation undertaken by 500 federal agents and police officers.
"Today our streets are safer, and the drug trade in Colorado has suffered a massive blow," Walsh said in a statement.
In addition to the illegal drugs, agents also seized 12 weapons, including assault rifles and handguns, and more than $400,000 in cash.
The drug trafficking probe began in December 2009 and evolved from FBI investigations of a series of 16 takeover bank robberies in the Denver area.
"What triggered this investigation was the very violent activity of some hard-core gang members," said Aurora, Colorado, Police Chief Daniel Oates. "Once we focused on them, our investigation led to a complex narcotics conspiracy."
Twenty-five suspected gang members have been charged with the bank robberies, according to prosecutors.
A total of 97 people have been charged in either federal or state court related to the drug sweep, and all but 17 had been taken into custody, authorities said. They said the sweep marked the biggest mass arrest for drug trafficking ever in the state.
If convicted, most of the defendants charged in federal court face sentences ranging from 10 years in prison to life terms and up to $10 million in fines, prosecutors said.
Defendants charged in state court could receive mandatory minimum prison sentences depending on the charges, they said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Tim Gaynor)