BISMARCK – Federal, state and local authorities are marshaling more than 50 agents to target human traffickers, illegal drugs and weapons, white-collar criminals and other organized crime in the oil-producing regions of North Dakota and Montana, officials said Wednesday.
The Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force consists of existing law enforcement officers assigned to four task forces — each with its own state-federal prosecutor — that will coordinate investigations from Bismarck, Dickinson, Minot and Williston.
"The focus is going to change," said Chris Myers, acting U.S. attorney for North Dakota. "We are going to focus on the worst of the worst criminal organizations in the Bakken."
The effort pools existing resources to attack criminal enterprises that have become more sophisticated and violent, changing the face of western North Dakota and eastern Montana, Myers said.
"We are doing what we can with our existing resources, recognizing that we need additional resources to battle this issue," he said.
While no new money was earmarked and no new positions were specifically created for the task force, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the strike force is a redoubling of efforts to take down criminal organizations. The number of local law enforcement officers in North Dakota has increased nearly 83 percent since 2005, and state lawmakers approved eight new agents for the Bureau of Criminal Investigation just this year, he noted.
"I can guarantee you, you are going to see results," he said.
Myers said the strike force adopts the model of the U.S. Department of Justice's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces, whose director, Bruce Ohr, joined officials in Bismarck and Williston for Wednesday's announcement.
Ohr said reports suggest much of the Bakken crime is fueled by illegal drug trafficking, especially of methamphetamine and heroin.
"And we have seen documented connections between some of the cases that are being worked here and larger drug organizations, and those are the ones that we want to focus on," he said.
North Dakota has seen an "alarming" increase in drug and human trafficking, Stenehjem said, with the number of drug cases skyrocketing from 385 in 2010 to 1,269 in 2014, according to preliminary figures. The nature of the drug activities also is "much more serious than they have been before," with direct pipelines from drug suppliers and heavily armed distributors, he said.
In addition to the roughly 50 strike force members in North Dakota, two FBI agents will spend extended periods of time in Sidney, Mont., along with two Montana Division of Criminal Investigation agents who will be sworn as federal officers and able to work across state lines, Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said.
In the last two years, Montana has seen nine drug trafficking organizations disrupted, 210 people indicted and/or convicted on federal narcotics charges and another 50 under investigation, Cotter said, adding a downturn in oil drilling hasn't meant less crime.
"The fact that rigs are stacked (idle), that is having no affect on the level of criminal activity that is occurring in the Bakken," he said.
The strike force also will investigate fraud and other economic crimes, environmental crimes and workplace injuries caused by employers' criminal conduct, Cotter said.
A new FBI office being built in Williston will supplement the strike force, officials said.
The strike force comes on the heels of Project Safe Bakken, a program created in 2013 that joined federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies in North Dakota and Montana to fight criminal activity in the Bakken.