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.
“Right now it’s as if fentanyl is raining on our reservation,” said Marvin Weatherwax, Jr., who serves on the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and represents the 15th district in the Montana House of Representatives.
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.”
‘They know who to choose’
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.
Locally made methamphetamine was long Montana’s primary drug scourge. But in the mid-2000s, the once-plentiful meth houses in the Midwest and northern states began to disappear amid new restrictions banning access to the drug’s precursor chemicals. Mexican cartels saw an opportunity and began capitalizing, law enforcement officials said, flooding the U.S. with a super potent form of meth and targeting indigenous communities in particular.
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.
“The profits are just out of this world,” she said.
Zinn was more than 1,300 miles from the southern border and here she was once again investigating Mexican cartels — the Sinaloa and the Jalisco New Generation cartel, or CJNG.
“I got excited,” Zinn said. “This is the territory I know and understand.”
At first she just heard “whispers” of a cartel presence. But over the years cartel associates have appeared to grow bolder, she said, showing up more often as they seek to expand their operations.
“The cartel will send out their advance team or individuals to get to know who’s distributing small amounts on this reservation, who can we get our claws into,” Zinn said. “And then when they do that, then they own them. We’ve seen that over and over.”
Women are often prime targets. Cartel associates have pursued single women on reservations, according to law enforcement and tribal officials, and then used their homes as bases of operations.
“They know who to choose,” said Stephanie Iron Shooter, the American Indian health director for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. “Just like any other prey predator situation — that’s how it is.”
The drug crisis has been felt most acutely on Montana’s Indian reservations.
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.
The Northern Cheyenne tribe relies on two federally funded Bureau of Indian Affairs tribal police officers per shift to patrol more than 440,000 acres of land home to roughly 6,000 residents, according to the tribal council. The adjacent Crow Reservation, the largest in the state, has four to six police officers per shift to patrol a swath of land the size of Rhode Island, according to Quincy Dabney, the mayor of Lodge Grass, a town on the reservation.
“When we don’t have the boots on the ground and people aren’t being held accountable, it really becomes the Wild, Wild West,” said Laslovich, the U.S. attorney. “I think you see that in Indian Country, here in Montana, more than we should.”
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.
“We are fighting this problem standing on one leg, and half the time we’re handcuffed,” Zinn said.
Dismantling a drug-trafficking ring
The case involving the former Mexican police officer-turned-drug trafficker was set in motion a couple of years earlier when the Butte-Silver Bow Sheriff’s Office received an intriguing tip.
In September 2018, a worker at a local FedEx store called to report that multiple people had been coming into the shop and stuffing wads of cash into packages addressed to the border town of San Ysidro, California (Fed-Ex prohibits the shipment of cash).
A couple of months later, one of the people who was sending the cash admitted to investigators that it was drug proceeds tied to an organization in Mexico.
Over the next several months, investigators with a DEA task force developed a cooperating witness. The witness introduced an undercover agent to the man who was supplying the drugs from his base in Sinaloa, Mexico — Humberto Villarreal.
“You just don’t get these kinds of cases where we’re dealing straight from Mexico,” said Sgt. Kevin Maloughney, an 18-year veteran with the Butte-Silver Bow Sheriff’s Office.
Soon the agents were ordering meth and fentanyl-laced pills directly from Villarreal. The drugs typically flowed to Montana from stash houses in southern California, authorities said.
Investigators focused on Medina, the former police officer and a cousin of Villarreal, after he was pulled over on the Fort Peck Reservation, in the far northeastern corner of the state, for running a stop sign in March 2019.
The sheriff's deputy let him go with a warning. But a report of the unusual encounter with a Mexican national in such a remote part of Montana later made its way to the agents investigating drug trafficking.
They discovered that Medina was a key part of the drug ring. He had valid U.S. visas, which made it easy for him to cross into the U.S. at the port in San Ysidro, Calif., on trips to collect cash and deliver drugs.
“Because he had no criminal history, there would be no reason for him to be further scrutinized,” said Anderberg, the Montana investigator.
After his arrest, Medina told investigators that he had traveled to Fort Peck in an effort to expand the cartel's drug operation to the reservation, according to Anderberg.
The multi-agency investigation resulted in the seizure of 65 pounds of meth, more than 2,000 counterfeit OxyContin pills laced with fentanyl and 3 pounds of heroin. The agents also confiscated more than $32,000 in cash and 19 firearms, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Montana.
Villarreal was sentenced to 17 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to charges of possession with intent to distribute meth and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Medina pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute controlled substances. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. Twenty others were also convicted for their roles in the drug trafficking network.
A second federal drug case in Montana has led to charges against more than two dozen people and includes allegations of Mexican cartel members using Native Americans as pawns in the operation.
The still-ongoing probe centers on the Crow Indian Reservation, where authorities say cartel associates took over at least two properties and used them to distribute meth to people on the reservation as well as the nearby Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and in the town of Billings.
Redfield’s lawyer wrote that she returned to the Crow Reservation after enduring a period of family turmoil and heartbreak, only to get drawn into the cartel’s clutches.
“Choosing to distance herself from acquaintances who knew her from the past and had no place to live, she often stayed with the cartel,” the lawyer, Jessica Polan Wright, wrote. “Trapped in the vicious cycle of addiction and under the cartel’s control, Ranita became a pawn in their operations.”
Redfield, 47, who pleaded guilty to dealing meth, was sentenced in December to five years in prison.
Bacon, 35, got involved in the operation after meeting the daughter of one of the Native American drug dealers, his lawyer wrote in court papers. He pleaded guilty in September to selling meth; he was sentenced to five years of probation.
“The cartel’s business model involves first locating and ingratiating themselves upon the local distributors. Then, when the bills started coming due, they brought in other, less friendly individuals,” the lawyer, Matthew Claus, wrote.
“The cartel extracted tens of thousands of dollars in cash, guns and vehicles from the Crow Reservation. Money and guns flowed out of state and out of the country and then the cartel left. In their wake, they left addicted, strung out, impoverished tribal members facing prosecutions and lengthy prison sentences, like Zach Bacon," Claus added.
The suspected ringleader, a member of the Jalisco New Generation cartel who goes by the name of Carlos, is now on the run, according to law enforcement sources.
Anguish on the reservations
The Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana was rocked by tragedy in March 2022. Over a single week, 17 people suffered fentanyl overdoses, four of them fatal.
The community is home to the only in-patient treatment center that exists on a Montana Indian reservation. But the 16-bed facility, Crystal Creek Lodge Treatment Center, has long focused on people struggling with alcohol abuse.
“We’re lacking a lot of resources to deal with a crisis that even our facility is not equipped to handle,” said Durand Tyland Bear Medicine, the director of Crystal Creek Lodge Treatment Center.
In the southeastern part of Montana, the Northern Cheyenne reservation is also in the grip of a drug epidemic, but it’s fueled by methamphetamine.
Some of the drugs pouring into the reservation came from the cartel network operating out of the neighboring Crow Reservation, prosecutors said in court papers.
Serena Wetherelt, president of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, said violent crime and burglaries surged during the pandemic, and calls to the police often resulted in no response. The situation got so dire, she said, that some tribal members formed their own vigilante group, the People’s Camp.
“They had cars. They had spotlights. They had a phone,” she said. “People would call that number rather than call the cops.”
In 2022, the Northern Cheyenne tribe filed a federal lawsuit against the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, alleging that the federal government had breached its obligation to keep residents on the reservation safe by failing to provide adequate law enforcement officers.
A Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Wetherelt said the situation went from bad to worse in the months after her tribe filed the lawsuit.
Last December, Wetherelt was notified by a tribal police chief that a reorganization of the federally funded force meant the number of officers and other staff was slashed from 19 to seven, according to members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council.
“We’re not asking very much from the government,” Wetherelt said. “We are asking for basic law enforcement to help our people…”
Her voice cracked with emotion and then she briefly went silent.
“I’m sorry, but this really makes me emotional,” she continued. “We just can’t seem to get anywhere.”