Mexican drug cartels are targeting America’s ‘last great place’


‘They know who to choose’

Stacy Zinn spent her first four years with the Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso, Texas, where she investigated Mexican cartels. She went on to work in Afghanistan and Peru pursuing narcoterrorists and cocaine traffickers. In 2014, the DEA transferred her to Montana and later placed her in charge of its offices in Billings, Great Falls, and Missoula.

“When I was promoted and they said, ‘You’re going to Montana,’ I’m like, ‘Montana? Are there drugs in Montana?’” recalled Zinn, who retired from the DEA in October after 23 years. 

The state is sometimes referred to as “the last great place” in America. Its 1.2 million people are spread out across 150,000 square miles of mountains, rivers and mostly rugged terrain. 

Locally made methamphetamine was long Montana’s primary drug scourge. But in the mid-2000s, the once-plentiful meth houses in the Midwest and northern states began to disappear amid new restrictions banning access to the drug’s precursor chemicals. Mexican cartels saw an opportunity and began capitalizing, law enforcement officials said, flooding the U.S. with a super potent form of meth and targeting indigenous communities in particular.

Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Montana
Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, on Jan. 20.Erin Trieb for NBC News

Zinn was shocked by the scope of the meth problem when she arrived in Montana 10 years ago. But it was soon eclipsed by fentanyl, which is even cheaper to produce and far more deadly. 

A counterfeit fentanyl pill that can be made for less than 25 cents in Mexico sells for $3 to $5 in cities like Seattle and Denver where drug markets are more established, but up to $100 in remote parts of Montana. It was one of the few states that hadn’t been a focus of Mexican cartels, Zinn said, but that soon changed. 

“The profits are just out of this world,” she said.

Zinn was more than 1,300 miles from the southern border and here she was once again investigating Mexican cartels — the Sinaloa and the Jalisco New Generation cartel, or CJNG. 

“I got excited,” Zinn said. “This is the territory I know and understand.”

At first she just heard “whispers” of a cartel presence. But over the years cartel associates have appeared to grow bolder, she said, showing up more often as they seek to expand their operations.

Stacy Zinn, former Montana director of Drug Enforcement Agency operations, in Billings, Mt.,
Stacy Zinn, Montana’s former DEA resident agent in charge, in Billings.Erin Trieb for NBC News

“The cartel will send out their advance team or individuals to get to know who’s distributing small amounts on this reservation, who can we get our claws into,” Zinn said. “And then when they do that, then they own them. We’ve seen that over and over.”

Women are often prime targets. Cartel associates have pursued single women on reservations, according to law enforcement and tribal officials, and then used their homes as bases of operations. 

“They know who to choose,” said Stephanie Iron Shooter, the American Indian health director for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. “Just like any other prey predator situation — that’s how it is.”

The drug crisis has been felt most acutely on Montana’s Indian reservations. 

Between 2017 and 2020, Montana’s opioid overdose death rate almost tripled (from 2.7 deaths per 100,000 residents to 7.3). In the decade leading up to 2020, the rate of overdose deaths among Native Americans was more than twice that of white Montana residents, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services

One of the few gas stations in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation
One of the few gas stations in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, a popular spot for truckers and travelers passing through town on Highway 212, where drug deals occur on a regular basis.Erin Trieb for NBC News

In many ways, Indian reservations make for ideal places for a drug operation to set up shop. The communities suffer from high rates of drug addiction and low numbers of law enforcement. 

The Northern Cheyenne tribe relies on two federally funded Bureau of Indian Affairs tribal police officers per shift to patrol more than 440,000 acres of land home to roughly 6,000 residents, according to the tribal council. The adjacent Crow Reservation, the largest in the state, has four to six  police officers per shift to patrol a swath of land the size of Rhode Island, according to Quincy Dabney, the mayor of Lodge Grass, a town on the reservation. 

“When we don’t have the boots on the ground and people aren’t being held accountable, it really becomes the Wild, Wild West,” said Laslovich, the U.S. attorney.  “I think you see that in Indian Country, here in Montana, more than we should.”

Complicating matters further, the reservations are sovereign nations where local law enforcement is restricted from operating without an agreement with the tribe. Even when agreements are in place, local and state authorities are often barred from arresting tribal members. And the tribal police officers are largely prohibited from arresting outsiders on the reservation.



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