Montana’s fight against meth and the Mexican drug cartels

Thursday, February 20, 2020
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Last week’s I-90 traffic stop that yielded 78 pounds of methamphetamine in Stillwater County was more than just law enforcement luck.

The Montana Highway Patrol trooper who made the stop is a member of MHP’s interdiction team.

For the last three years, that interdiction team has been quietly and doggedly working to make a negative impact what MHP Col. Tom Butler describes as large-scale criminal networks that are bringing illegal drugs and weapons into the state, leading to addiction and violence. ​

The team was launched in 2017 by the Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) as part of a multi-pronged approach called “AID Montana: Addressing the Impact of Drugs Initiative,” which sought to develop a comprehensive plan for attacking substance abuse and criminal activity associated with that. ​Treatment and education were also identified as critical elements to getting the state’s collective hands on the problem.

The organized crime DOJ is talking about is mainly Mexican drug cartels. Last year, a Sinaloa Cartel linked trafficker was sentenced in federal court in Billings.

“From our experience, all major Montana methamphetamine investigations conducted in recent years eventually point to Mexico as a source country,” said Bryan Lockerby, the administrator of the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). “Arrests made over the past few years have identified cartel members who were smuggling meth into our state or managed distri bution points out of major cities.”

THE CARTELS

The 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment states the following regarding Mexican cartel “organized crime,” referred to as Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO’s) —

“Mexican TCOs remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States and no other groups are currently positioned to challenge them. The Sinaloa Cartel maintains the most expansive footprint in the United States, while the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación or CJNG) has become the second-most dominant domestic presence over the past few years.”

Lockerby explains that there are various definitions of organized crime, but cartels, in particular, can be any organization that promotes, controls, or is significantly involved in drug trafficking.

“This line is often blurred since cartels have increasingly become involved in weapons smuggling, money laundering, human trafficking, and even controlling the agricultural market with avocado production or the misappropriation of fossil fuels,” said Lockerby.

Cartels are primarily responsible for the importation of meth and heroin, to the point that purity levels continue to increase, said Barnes. Also, meth prices are dropping simply due to a saturated market and availability.

THE TEAM

The team consists of 10 troopers, 11 K9s, two Montana Division of Criminal Investigations (DCI) agents and one criminal analyst.

The squad is further split into a west team and an east team, so that the entire state is covered. Increasing its impact is the fact that the team is “plugged into” every drug task force in the state, as well as local law enforcement agencies, said Butler. All resulting cases are handed over to either the respective county attorney or when appropriate, federal authorities.

In 2019, a DOJ COPS grants enabled four additional troopers to be added to the team, plus a criminal analyst. That criminal analyst’s job is to educate local agencies and state employees about the criminal intelligence component.

The legislature last year provided funding for an additional five troopers for the team, effective July 1, 2020. The hope is to have three separate functioning interdiction teams.

The K9s are relatively new to MHP, with the first being added in 2013. Three of the dogs were financed through a grant. The other nine were financed through seizures from drug cases. In other words, drug dogs were bought with money taken from convicted drug offenders.

MHP Capt. Jim Sanderson, who leads the interdiction team, recently told the legislative Law and Justice Interim Committee that an additional three dogs will be added.

HOW IT WORKS

Volume and critical eyes.

In other words, the team makes a lot of traffic stops on the highways and byways statewide, looking for specific signs of criminal activity.

First, just like every other law enforcement officer in the nation, a trooper needs probable cause to pull a car over. Speeding, tailgating, license plate and registration issues are some common reasons for routine traffic stops.

The troopers are then trained to look for simple but specific factors that are commonly found with people transporting illegal drugs.

-Food wrappers all over the vehicle.

-Multiple cell phones.

-Not knowing specifics about where they are allegedly heading.

-A story that doesn’t make sense.

-A nervous driver.

-A plethora of air fresheners.

This type of interdiction work “negatively impact the members of criminal organizations using the highways and byways of the state of Montana,” Sanderson told the committee.

And it’s not just drugs. It’s the criminal element that is being looked for, which has encompassed human trafficking and fraud, said Sanderson.

Sanderson said this work is more difficult in Montana than in some other states due to “more liberty.” For example, a K9 cannot be run around a car just because of a trooper’s hunch.

Also in Montana, search warrants are needed to do vehicle searches. In many other states, law enforcement can conduct a search based on their own probable cause. The bottom line is that it takes Montana law enforcement much longer to investigate crimes than other states.

THE RESULTS

Butler said it takes about four years worth of data to be able to judge the effectiveness of a program. The interdiction team will hit that mark at the end of this year. Preliminary numbers are promising, with meth being the most trafficked drug and the one that draws the most of the team’s attention.

In 2016, MHP seized 6.53 pounds of meth. In 2019, that number was 75.63 pounds, with the interdiction team responsible for 60.07 pounds of that amount.

In 2016, MHP seized one pound of cocaine. In 2019, four pounds of cocaine were seized, which Sanderson noted was coming from the southern border.

Marijuana seizures have actually declined — 1,200 pounds in 2016 compared to 422 pounds in 2019. Sanderson suspects that is largely due to the “decriminalization” of marijuana in surrounding states, as well as Medical Marijuana in Montana.

Although no number was given, Butler and Sanderson said the number of people arrested had declined since 2016, but the drug amounts — particularly with meth — had increased.

Another reason for the lower arrest number is the focus on large-scale trafficking operations rather than on small dealers.

Stillwater County has seen a steady uptick of methamphetamine and marijuana cases during the past handful of years. ​The following is a non-inclusive list of some of the bigger cases:

•Last week’s seizure of 78 pounds of methamphetamine during a traffic stop on I-90 and the arrest of a Florida man on federal charges.

•In January 2020, a man was arrested on I-90 allegedly with 11 pounds of pot.

•In 2019, a California man was sentenced to federal prison for 15 years after being caught with eight pounds of meth on I-90.​

•In 2019, a Chinese man pleaded guilty to having 70 pounds of marijuana on I-90 in January 2018.​

•In March 2019, a Billings woman was stopped by a deputy on I-90 with allegedly 9.2 pounds of marijuana. That case is pending.

•In April 2019, a man and woman were arrested on I-90 with 29.2 grams of meth, a 50-caliber handgun, a scale, and needles. The woman was already a convicted felon who served prison time for aggravated kidnapping and aggravated assault of a man over a drug deal.

•In 2018, a man admitted to having 20 pounds of marijuana wrapped like Christmas presents in his car on I-90 (Montana Highway Patrol case).

•In January 2018, an Idaho oilfield worker was arrested on I-90 with 174 grams of psilocybin mushrooms, 24 grams of cocaine and 47 grams of marijuana.

•In September 2018, a man who was in the U.S. illegally was arrested with 7.8 grams of cocaine, as well as heroin and Narcan during an I-90 traffic stop. He was prosecuted and deported (MHP case).

•In June 2018, a Kansas man was arrested with 1.9 pounds of marijuana in his car on I-90 that he told law enforcement he had planned to sell (SCSO case).

•In 2017, two Absarokee/Fishtail area men were sentenced to federal prison after a state investigation revealed that more than 100 pounds of methamphetamine had been trafficked into the area between 2013 and 2015. At one point, one of the men admitted to federal authorities that he had trafficked 178 pounds of meth (Federal DEA/ State DCI/SCSO case).

•In 2017, a Belgrade construction worker was sentenced after having been caught with 15 seedling marijuana plants in his vehicle on I-90. (Columbus Police Department/SCSO case).

•In November 2017, a North Dakota couple were sentenced on multiple charges after getting caught with meth, cocaine, marijuana and a stolen firearm at the Columbus Super 8. SCSO/DCI

•In May 2016, three men were arrested and charged federally when approximately nine pounds of marijuana was found in their vehicle after being stopped for speeding on I-90. One had been previously deported from the U.S. MHP

•In 2014, a California couple was arrested on I-90 with 115 pounds of marijuana. MHP/SCSO

SMALLER METH CASES

•November 2019: A Yellowstone County man is facing felony charges stemming from an I-90 meth case in which a digital scale, several baggies of meth and other paraphernalia were found

•March 2019: A convicted felon on probation for a drug case has denied having meth, methadone and hydrocodone in a car.

•November 2018: A convicted felon out of Musselshell County was charged with felony drug possession when small bags of meth were allegedly found in his car.