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Timothy Q. Purdon, Published August 03 2013

Letter: We focus on drug threat

As North Dakota’s U.S. attorney, I have, over the past two years, been witness to heroic efforts by federal prosecutors and agents from FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Marshals Service aimed at combating a growing threat from drug trafficking organizations in northwestern North Dakota. These dedicated lawmen sacrifice time with their families and friends to work long hours and late nights doing their part to make sure law-abiding citizens in the Oil Patch are kept safe.

In July, federal “drug czar” Gil Kerlekowski visited Bismarck to learn more about the drug threat in North Dakota’s Oil Patch. As we consider the need for additional state and federal resources to address this threat – and additional resources are much needed – it is important to learn from the efforts that are already underway.

For more than two years, local law enforcement in the Oil Patch have been telling anyone who would listen that their small departments were being overwhelmed by stunning population growth. They have described themselves as being “100 percent reactive.” In the spring of 2012, the FBI and U.S. attorneys from North Dakota and Montana convened a series of meetings involving federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement in both states to address this issue. Dozens of lawmen and women from the Oil Patch attended, all concerned about what they were seeing on the ground. We all recognized the growing threat of organized drug trafficking in the region. These meetings led directly to the formulation of our federal strategy to counter this threat: increased federal law enforcement resources for the Oil Patch and federal prosecutions aimed at quickly disrupting any organized drug traffickers who moved into the region.

The Department of Justice moved rapidly to place additional federal agents in or near the Oil Patch. The past year has seen five FBI agents stationed in Minot, an all-time high. There are four FBI agents stationed in Bismarck, also an increase. These agents are working organized drug trafficking cases in Williston and Dickinson and on the Fort Berthold Reservation, which sits right at the heart of the Bakken boom. On July 1, FBI assigned two additional agents as “boots on the ground” to temporarily live and work in the Sidney/Williston area.

The ATF recently stationed an agent in Bismarck for the first time, and ATF will soon add another agent to work Oil Patch cases. Homeland Security Investigations has added an additional agent in western North Dakota. Finally, leadership at Border Patrol, DEA, the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area agency, and BIA are all looking to add additional agents or exploring new ways for the feds to support local law enforcement.

The presence of these new FBI and ATF agents has yielded results in terms of both the quantity and quality of federal prosecutions in the Oil Patch. Prosecutions at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in western North Dakota are up – way up. Statistics from the federal court reveal an increase in federal charges in western North Dakota from 126 defendants charged in 2009, to 144 in 2010, 172 in 2011, 256 in 2012, and 205 defendants charged in just the first six months of 2013. While these numbers include defendants charged with all crimes, the exploding caseload is due in significant part to an increase in organized drug trafficking prosecutions.

Federal prosecutors and agents have worked hard to counter this new threat. We are proud of the swiftness of our response. But this fight is just beginning. Our biggest advantage is that we are not in this alone. We know we can rely on our great local, tribal and state law enforcement partners to collaborate with us in this effort. New threats call for new solutions, and I am confident that our joint efforts over the past two years have set the stage for continued productive partnerships across all levels of law enforcement in North Dakota. This should be welcome news as this fight is far from over.

Purdon is the U.S. attorney for the District of North Dakota.