BILLINGS, Mont. — The booming Bakken oil patch that's 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 were demonstrated this week with the shooting of an FBI agent in Keene, N.D. The agent, who was not seriously injured, was executing a search warrant, said U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon.
“More people equals more money, equals more crime,” Purdon said, adding that the federal shutdown is making the situation worse.
“We're in this very, very serious fight against organized crime for control of the streets of the oil patch, and I've got about half of my employees home on furlough,” he said. “We're in this fight now with one arm tied behind our back.”
The law enforcement partnership announced Friday, known as Project Safe Bakken, started last year. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said it could not be made public until this week.
A parallel Bakken-focused effort in July in North Dakota 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. Purdon said four arrests this week were part of the same investigation.
In the Montana case, the government alleges Robert Ferrell Armstrong, 49, of Moses Lake, Wash., distributed large quantities of methamphetamine, via couriers, in the Bakken and elsewhere in Montana.
Armstrong and several others among the 12 people arrested face federal drug conspiracy charges that carry potential sentences of 10 years to life in prison if they are convicted.
Other crimes on rise
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 Montana's four Bakken counties between 2009 and 2012, the period for which the most complete data was available. Counties elsewhere in the state showed a drop in crime in those years.
Montana Attorney General Fox said law enforcement agencies have been forced to play catch-up.
But Fox stressed that the economic benefits from the boom have been substantial.
“With the good, comes some bad,” Fox said. “There's a lot to be done. I'm personally committed to making sure we address the public safety issues.”
We're in this very, very serious fight against organized crime for control of the streets of the oil patch, and I've got about half of my employees home on furlough. We're in this fight now with one arm tied behind our back.”
U.S. Attorney for North Dakota