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Mexican drug cartels hit north-central Montana


Last updated 3/27/2016 at 12:43am

International crime cartels are selling hard drugs along the Hi-Line and the FBI has confirmed the Mexican border is the most “prevalent route” by which drugs are arriving in the U.S. and, consequently, into Montana.

An agent with the Tri-Agency Safe Trails Task Force, who prefers not to be identified by name, said cartel members have been selling methamphetamine, heroin and opioid pills along the Hi-Line since before the Bakken oil boom started in 2007. But the flood of people and high oil wages opened the floodgates of drugs and outside dealers. The drugs have spilled out of the Bakken, down the Hi-Line and into Hill County.

A local, who has spent time around drug dealers and who asked not be identified, talked about a methamphetamine dealer in Havre.

The Havre dealer met regularly in eastern Montana with a cartel member to buy meth that would be sold along the Hi-Line, the person said. The out-of-town gang member who was selling meth to the local dealer, according to the testimony, was short in stature, spoke “little English” and had a tattoo of the number 13 on his face.

The Task Force agent said the tattoo most likely indicates the drug dealer was a member of a Latin-based crime syndicate, a cartel.

One possibility is the gang MS-13.

Journalist and Latin American analyst Samuel Logan says on the website “This is for the Mara Salvastrucha” MS-13, Mara Salvatrucha 13, is a 60,000 to 80,000-member gang with a reputation for “brutality and gruesome violence.” The gang makes money through extortion, arms dealing, and human and drug trafficking. The gang was started in the ’80s by El Salvadorian immigrants in Los Angeles who were fleeing civil war at home and seeking protection from Hispanic rivals in the area. But guerilla fighters from EL Salvador poured into the U.S. and reshaped the gang from one whose focus was “peace and friendship” into a crime syndicate whose members are so ruthless they are hired by other gangs as contract killers. One of MS-13’s allies is the Mexican Mafia, Logan says.

Another possiblity for which cartel the out-of-town drug dealer belonged to is the South Side Sureños. According to Executive Secretary of International Gang Investigators Association Andrew Eways, most Sureños are of Mexican descent and have a stronghold in Southern California, but have been confirmed in 35 U.S. states. They have tattoos of the number 13 because it represents the 13th letter of the alphabet, M, and it is a way they pay allegiance to the Mexican Mafia.

Whichever cartel the drug dealer was from, he wanted to make sure the Havre dealer and their partner was trustworthy. He made a reference to decapitation if they weren’t, the person said.

An accused “large-scale” drug dealer is sitting in the Hill County Detention Center. Charging documents say Alejandro Romero was arrested at the Amtrak Depot in Havre in January as he was traveling from eastern Montana to Washington state. He has a history of drug-related convictions and has ties to the South Side Sureños gang, charging documents say. Romero does not have the number 13 tattooed on his face.

The evidence repeatedly shows that when drugs come to eastern Montana, some inevitably end up on Havre’s doorstep.

The Montana National Guard Counterdrug Program will receive a 60 percent funding hike, according to a press release issued last week by Sen. Jon Tester’s office.

The increase is partly in response to pressure from Tester to National Guard Bureau Chief General Frank Grass to help fight “organized and transnational drug trafficking and smuggling” in the Bakken region.

By the time Tester had written Grass about allocating money to fight the increased crime in the region — Tester tells Grass that “arrests in all crime categories in Bakken counties increased by 80 percent”— he had long known how dire the situation in Montana is.

Tester held a field hearing Sept. 26, 2014, in Sidney to discuss the influx of hard drugs like meth and where they were coming from. Among the people at the hearing were U.S. Attorney for Montana Michael Cotter and FBI Assistant Special Agent Scott Vito. One of the things the large panel discussed was where the drugs that are wreaking havoc on Montanans were coming from.

Vito told the panel the Mexican border through California was the most “prevalent route” by which drugs arrived in the region.

Cotter cited a case that was prosecuted in Billings by the U.S. Attorney’s office as an example, hearing minutes say.

Two defendants, Alvarado and Martinez, who were part of the Sinaloa Cartel, a Sinaloa, Mexico-based trafficking cartel, were prosecuted in 2013, Cotter said.

In the debriefing, the men admitted to moving 400 pounds of “pure meth” into Montana and toward the Bakken in a span of “only” six months. At the time of the arrest in Billings of the men who were prosecuted, they had $56,000 in cash, 2 pounds of cocaine, 6 pounds of meth, 100 grams of heroin and 17 firearms, Cotter said.

“These men were connected to high levels of the Sinaloa Cartel, so you know we’ve got big city problems in Montana,” Cotter told Tester.

A local Task Force agent confirmed that cartel members have gone beyond the Bakken and landed in Hill County. He added that they are anything but inconspicuous.

“They come to this area and they’re a big fish in a little pond and they stick out,” he said.

He said cartel members “target” the Indian reservations.

“I don’t know why that is,but it may have something to do with the drug transportation pipeline,” the agent said. “One of our main pipelines here is the Yakima. We just had a big case that we took down and one of those guys was part of the cartel. He was an illegal immigrant.”

Tester said Tuesday during an interview at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation that he knows how important border security is. That’s why he’s against reducing border patrol agents by 300 as President Obama’s 2017 budget would do.

“The folks who want to do harm to this country will go to the weakest link in the chain, and if the weakest link in the chain is north of Havre or north of Plentywood or north of Bismarck, North Dakota, or wherever, that’s where they will go,” Tester said.

When asked about the technology that is supposed to make up for the curtailed boots on the ground, Tester said he wasn’t impressed with what he has heard so far.

“All I know is that if they’re replacing people with technology on homeland security, we need to see that plan. … I’m not opposed to having the best technology on the northern border if it saves money. In fact, I encourage them to do that. But that’s not the story I heard. The story I heard is they are reducing the people and the equipment isn’t anything more than what they would do under normal budget circumstances,” Tester said.

Tester’s office said the senator “would like to see increased security along the southern border,” adding that that is the reason he voted for the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that provided for increased border security. The bill made it past the Senate but was never taken up in the House of Representatives, the statement said.


Alex Ross contributed to this story.


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