BILLINGS, Mont. – The booming Bakken oil patch thats given a major boost to U.S. energy production has emerged as a new front in the fight against drug trafficking.
Organized crime rings are popping up in the Northern Plains, with traffickers sensing opportunity in the thousands of men and women lured there by the hope of a big paycheck.
Law enforcement officers across the region have teamed up to crack down, netting one of their most significant successes this week – four arrests in North Dakota and a dozen in Montana, all but one on drug charges.
Authorities said Friday that more arrests are in the works as they unveiled an interagency partnership to combat crime in the oil patch. But with drug offenses, violence and property crimes on the upswing, they face an uphill climb to reduce the spiking crime rate.
The changes at play in once-quiet prairie communities were demonstrated this week with the shooting of an FBI agent in the small, unincorporated town of Keene, N.D. The agent, who was not seriously injured, was executing a search warrant as part of an oil patch-centered investigation, U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon said.
More people equals more money equals more crime, Purdon said, adding the federal shutdown is making the situation worse.
Were in this very, very serious fight against organized crime for control of the streets of the oil patch, and Ive got about half of my employees home on furlough, he said.
The law enforcement partnership announced Friday, known as Project Safe Bakken, has been at work since last year.
A parallel effort in North Dakota in July charged 22 people with conspiracy to sell heroin and other drugs on an Indian reservation in the heart of the oil patch. Authorities linked that case to a national drug trafficking ring seeking to make inroads in the Bakken. Purdon said the four arrests this week were part of the same investigation.
In the Montana case, the government alleges that 49-year-old Robert Ferrell Armstrong, aka Dr. Bob, of Moses Lake, Wash., brought in large quantities of methamphetamine from his home state and distributed them in the Bakken and elsewhere in Montana through a network of couriers.
The arrests follow increases in most major crimes since the Bakken boom began about five years ago. A review of FBI crime reports show violent crime was up 64 percent and property crimes up 63 percent in Montanas four Bakken counties between 2009 and 2012, the period for which the most complete data was available.
Montana Attorney General Fox acknowledged that law enforcement agencies are challenged by the dramatic changes in the Bakken that few anticipated a decade ago. But Fox stressed that the economic benefits from the boom have been substantial. More than 20,000 people have poured into eastern Montana and western North Dakota since oil production began its meteoric rise in 2008.
With the good, comes some bad, Fox said. Im personally committed to making sure we address the public safety issues.