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Drugs, crime rings follow US oil boom

A new front is emerging in the fight against drug trafficking as crime rings follow a burgeoning work force to the Northern Plains.

BILLINGS, Mont. — The booming Bakken oil patch that’s given a major boost to U.S. energy production has emerged as a new front in the fight against drug trafficking.

Organized crime rings are popping up in the Northern Plains, with traffickers sensing opportunity in the thousands of men and women lured there by the hope of a big paycheck.

Law-enforcement officers across the region have teamed up to crack down on the trafficking, netting one of their most significant indictments so far this week — a dozen drug arrests in Montana and four in North Dakota.

Authorities say more arrests are in the works as part of investigations conducted through a new interagency partnership. But with drug offenses, violence and property crimes on the upswing, they face an uphill climb to reduce the spiking crime rate.

The changes at play in once-quiet prairie communities were demonstrated this week with the shooting of an FBI agent in the small, unincorporated town of Keene, N.D. The agent, who was not seriously injured, was executing a search warrant as part of an oil patch-centered investigation, said U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon.

“More people equals more money equals more crime,” Purdon said, adding that the federal shutdown is making the situation worse.

“We’re in this very, very serious fight against organized crime for control of the streets of the oil patch, and I’ve got about half of my employees home on furlough,” he said. “We’re in this fight now with one arm tied behind our back.”

The law enforcement partnership, known as Project Safe Bakken, has been at work since last year. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said it could not be made public until arrests and indictments were made in the cases that were unsealed this week.

A parallel effort in North Dakota in July charged 22 people with conspiracy to sell heroin and other drugs on an Indian reservation in the heart of the oil patch. Authorities linked that case to a national drug trafficking ring seeking to make inroads in the Bakken.

In the Montana case, the government alleges that 49-year-old Robert Ferrell Armstrong, aka Dr. Bob, of Moses Lake, Wash., brought in large quantities of methamphetamine from his home state and distributed them in the Bakken and elsewhere in Montana through a network of couriers.

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