BILLINGS, Mont. - An investigation into drug crimes in the Bakken oil patch has led to the arrests of 11 people authorities linked to a ring that trafficked methamphetamine from southern California to the Northern Plains, according to court documents and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Authorities said Friday the defendants will face drug conspiracy charges in Montana.
The defendants include four Montana residents, three from Los Angeles and four from Taft, Calif.
A formal indictment against the defendants has not yet been filed.
FBI affidavits filed in several of the cases described a defendant shipping more than 2 pounds of meth from California for distribution by other suspects in Billings, Roundup, Mont., and Rapid City, S.D., earlier this year.
None of those cities are in the Bakken region, but authorities say they can serve as staging points to move drugs into the oil patch.
Each of the 11 faces a single count of conspiracy to possess meth with intent to distribute, which carries a potential penalty of life in prison and a fine of up to $10 million upon conviction. Calls to defense attorneys were not immediately returned Friday.
The arrests mark at least the third major trafficking ring to be targeted by state and federal law enforcement as authorities crack down on drug dealers wanting to profit off the oil money flowing into the region.
More than 20,000 people have poured into eastern Montana and western North Dakota since the region's crude production began its meteoric rise in 2008. Thousands more are expected in the next several years.
Local law enforcement agencies at times have been overwhelmed with the rise in criminal offenses, prompting federal and state agencies such as the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation to move more agents into the oil patch.
U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said 59 people have been indicted on drug charges since the multi-agency "Project Safe Bakken" crackdown began, and at least 70 more indictments are expected in the next 12 months.
"What we're doing in the Bakken with state and local agencies is a constant battle," Cotter said. He declined to comment on the latest arrests except to say the defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty.
In October, a dozen people tied to a ring that imported meth from Washington state into eastern Montana was broken up. The defendants have all pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Since July, authorities in North Dakota have charged 26 people with crimes linked to a conspiracy to sell heroin and other drugs on an Indian reservation in the heart of the oil patch. That ring had connections to a national drug trafficking organization seeking to make inroads in the Bakken, authorities said.
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