Posted on March 11, 2024

Mexican Drug Cartels Are Targeting America’s ‘Last Best Place’

Lisa Cavazuti et al., NBC, February 10, 2024

On the evening of March 17, 2020, a former Mexican police officer working for the Sinaloa cartel left his hotel room in Tijuana and walked across the U.S. border into Southern California at 10:09 p.m.

Ricardo Ramos Medina’s first stop was San Diego International Airport, where he picked up a rental car. He drove to a nearby location and met a female drug mule, who handed off a grocery sack filled with methamphetamine. Then he set out on a much longer journey — a 16-hour drive to Montana.

Medina had made the trip a handful of times before, but this time it didn’t go as planned. Before he reached Butte, he was pulled over by state and federal officers. Inside his white Jeep Compass, they found about 2 pounds of pure methamphetamine — enough, authorities said, to supply the entire town of Townsend, Montana (population: 2,150), for multiple days.

The arrest, which was outlined in court papers and in interviews with investigators on the case, helped bring down a drug trafficking ring that federal prosecutors said brought at least 2,000 pounds of meth and 700,000 fentanyl-laced pills into Montana from Mexico over three years.

“Why Montana?” said Chad Anderberg, a Montana Division of Criminal Investigation agent who was one of the lead investigators on the case. “It boiled down to money. He could make so much more profit from drugs he sold here than in any other place.”

Illegal drugs have long flowed from Mexico to the more remote parts of the U.S. But with the rise of fentanyl, cartel associates have pushed more aggressively into Montana, where pills can be sold for 20 times the price they get in urban centers closer to the border, state and federal law enforcement officials said.

Some areas of the state have become awash with drugs, particularly its Indian reservations, where tribal leaders say crime and overdoses are surging.

On some reservations, cartel associates have formed relationships with Indigenous women as a way of establishing themselves within communities to sell drugs, law enforcement officials and tribal leaders said. More frequently, traffickers lure Native Americans into becoming dealers by giving away an initial supply of drugs and turning them into addicts indebted to the cartels.


Cracking down on the drug trade is especially challenging in a state as vast as Montana where law enforcement struggles to police the wide-open spaces and Indian reservations rely on under-funded and short-staffed tribal police forces. On at least one reservation, tribe members formed a vigilante group in a desperate bid to fight drug-related crime.

But Montana authorities have made inroads in the last couple of years. The arrest of the former Mexican police officer was part of a massive bust that ensnared 21 other members of a drug-trafficking ring tied to the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world. And since last April, 26 suspects have been charged in a second federal drug case involving Mexican cartel associates and members of two Native American tribes.

“People are surprised,” said Jesse Laslovich, the U.S. attorney for Montana, who has been overseeing the investigations. “You’re as far north as you can get in the United States, and yet we have the cartel here.”


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 best place” in America. Its 1.2 million people are spread out across 150,000 square miles of mountains, rivers and mostly rugged terrain.


Zinn was shocked by the scope of the meth problem when she arrived in Montana 10 years ago. But then came the arrival of 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.


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.

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.


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.

It adds up to a jurisdictional maze that hampers crime fighting at a time when drugs are ravaging Indian communities, current and former law enforcement officials say.