Drug Traffickers Find Haven in Shadows of Indian Country

Sarah Kershaw, New York Times, Feb. 19, 2006

ST. REGIS MOHAWK RESERVATION, N.Y.—He had eluded the authorities for years. Witnesses against him had mysteriously disappeared. Shots were fired from his highly secured compound here last year when the state police tried to close in.

The man, John V. Oakes, like a fast-rising number of American Indian drug traffickers across the country, saw himself as “untouchable,” as one senior investigator put it, protected by armed enforcers and a code of silence that ruled the reservation.

After he was finally arrested last May, Mr. Oakes was recorded from jail talking on the phone with his estranged wife. “I can’t believe people let this happen to me,” he said, according to Derek Champagne, the Franklin County district attorney who listened to the recorded call. “You can’t touch me. I’m on the reservation, and I do what I want.”

Investigators described Mr. Oakes as an intimidating trafficker who concentrated on stealing drugs and cash from a prosperous and growing cluster of criminals who, like Mr. Oakes, have built sprawling mansions near worn-down trailers on this reservation straddling the Canadian border.

Law enforcement officials say Mr. Oakes and the drug lords he is accused of stealing from are part of a violent but largely overlooked wave of trafficking and crime that has swept through the nation’s Indian reservations in recent years, as large-scale criminal organizations have found havens and allies in the wide-open and isolated regions of Indian country.

In the eyes of law enforcement, reservations have become a critical link in the drug underworld. They have helped traffickers transport high-potency marijuana and Ecstasy from eastern Canada into cities like Buffalo, Boston and New York, and have facilitated the passage of cocaine and methamphetamine from cities in the West and Midwest into rural America.

In some cases, outside drug gangs work with Indian criminals to distribute drugs on Indian and non-Indian lands. And on a growing number of reservations, drug traffickers—particularly Mexican criminals—are marrying Indian women to establish themselves on reservations.

At the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in northwestern Wisconsin, for instance, several members of the Latin Kings gang married Indian women while a tribal offshoot of the gang built a $3 million crack cocaine ring moving drugs from Milwaukee into and around the reservation over the past few years, prosecutors said.

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The deep loyalty that exists within tribes, where neighbors are often related, and the intense mistrust of the American justice system make securing witnesses and using undercover informants extremely difficult. And on some reservations, Indian drug traffickers have close relationships with tribal government or law enforcement officials and enjoy special protection that allows them to operate freely, investigators say.

A Direct Hand in Trafficking

Casino money has also fueled the surge, providing a fast-growing source of customers and well-financed partners for outside drug traffickers. And cutbacks in welfare payments in cities have prompted many Indians to return to reservations, often bringing with them connections to gangs and drug rings.

Some traffickers have given away drugs to Indians as a way of luring them into the trade. The recently convicted leader of a Mexican drug ring had a chilling strategy on five reservations in Wyoming and the Midwest, the authorities said: targeting tribes with high alcohol addiction rates and handing out free methamphetamine, recruiting the newly addicted Indians as dealers and orchestrating romantic relationships between gang members and Indian women.

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Here on Mohawk land, a reservation of roughly 6,000 people on the United States side, according to the tribe, investigators estimate that 10 to 15 major Indian criminal organizations, along with outside drug rings, move more than $1 billion annually in high-grade marijuana and Ecstasy across the Canadian border, through the reservation and into the Northeast. Prosecutors say they are catching only about 2 percent of that contraband.

The drug trade afforded Mr. Oakes a lifestyle that neighbors on this reservation could barely dream of. Stealing from other dealers was inherently dangerous—as Mr. Champagne said, “I was surprised that he wasn’t going to be my next homicide.” But for Mr. Oakes the rewards outweighed the risk: He owned a gated compound on the St. Lawrence River, with 16 surveillance cameras, a souped-up Lincoln Navigator and several speedboats.

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Although much of the drug trafficking on reservations involves moving the contraband across the nation’s borders and from large cities through the states, the drugs often never leave Indian lands.

At the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Mont., methamphetamine addiction is rampant among the 10,000 members of the tribe, unemployment reaches 85 percent in the winter and drug-related violence is widespread.

“It’s destroying our culture, our way of life, killing our people,” said Darrel Rides at the Door, a drug and alcohol counselor who uses traditional healing therapies, burning sage and sweet grass during “talking circles,” to cleanse the soul of the demons of addiction. “A lot of people, they feel sort of disempowered to do anything about it.”

Local law enforcement officials in Montana, including Jeff Faque, the under sheriff of Glacier County, said that with no jurisdiction over the reservation, they could not stem the large quantities of methamphetamine moving through it in a state with one of the highest rates of meth use in the nation. Mexican gangs based in Washington State are working with Blackfeet Indians and others to traffic methamphetamine into and across Montana, the authorities say.

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