BEMIDJI, Minn. - Efforts to keep drugs out of Indian Country continued Monday as U.S. District Attorney Andrew Luger and staff traveled from Minneapolis to Red Lake for a public safety meeting and debriefing session with tribal leaders and safety officials.
The visit comes two weeks after Luger's office announced the indictment of 41 people in a heroin trafficking operation with a focus on the Red Lake and White Earth reservations.
"It's fortuitous because we've been working so closely with their tribal police on this large heroin case," Luger said in an interview with the Bemidji Pioneer.
On May 28, 41 defendants were named in a conspiracy to traffic heroin and prescription drugs case. Omar Sharif Beasley, 37, was identified as the ring leader of the operation. Luger said the recent in-depth takedown of dealers, distributors and leaders follows the arrests of approximately 100 traffickers statewide last year.
"We know somebody else is going to come in and try to pick up where they left off, but by taking out so many people, we've left less infrastructure for the next group to get started," Luger said. "But, we'll be ready for them when they come."
Luger confirmed the Red Lake and White Earth reservations were a specific target of the intended heroin distribution, which also reached reservations in North Dakota.
"This was very much an organization targeting Indian Country," Luger said. 'Heroin, nationally, but certainly in Minnesota is a real issue with tribal nations, they've been targeted by traffickers."
Luger explained some traffickers believe there is less law enforcement and police resources on reservations. He said part of the recent bust, named Operation Exile, was to show that is not true.
Operation Exile, was a federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement collaboration to eliminate the flow of heroin into the state from the Mexican pipeline.
The seven-month investigation culminated in the arrests of those 41 individuals in the Bemidji area, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere, Luger said. All parties were charged in the same indictment, but each defendant will be tried and sentenced separately, which may take up to a year to complete.
"All of the defendants have the right to go to trial, which could elongate the process," said Ben Petok, director of communications with Luger's office.
Although tribal band members are governed by their individual sovereign nations, the U.S. Attorney's office prosecutes criminal cases working in conjunction with tribal governments.
Deidre Aanstad, tribal liaison for the Minnesota U.S. Attorney's office, explained Red Lake is under exclusive federal criminal jurisdiction, which means either the tribe has jurisdiction or the federal government has jurisdiction. Aanstad is the lead prosecutor in the Beasley organization case. Petok said the case is unique in that there are non-band members committing crimes on the reservation.
"The tribe does not have jurisdiction over non-band members," Aanstad said. "So if someone is to be charged, our office would take that case."
Aanstad said, however, in drug cases where it is a victimless crime and a non-band member commits the crime, the county could process that case.
Recently, some tribal councils have proposed that non-band members be tried in tribal court if the crime occurs on reservation lands. Luger said it would require a change in law for that to occur.
Luger clarified the recent arrests are not gang-affiliated.
"The Native Mob case was a statewide case against a large number of people involved in violence and gang activity. The Beasley organization that we prosecuted here was very much a multi-state heroin organization, not necessarily tied to any other organizations," Luger said.
In addition to drug trafficking, Luger said his office is focussing on human trafficking. A year ago, Luger's office began a labor and sex trafficking initiative.
"We're considered, again, one of the state's that is at risk because of a number of reasons, one is our location," Luger said. "People traveling to the oil fields in North Dakota, the (human) pipeline from Chicago, and we find ourselves with a large amount of trafficking cases."
Luger said his office is working with local law enforcement and county governments throughout the state on how to better identify trends and break cases in their communities.
"We're seeing a lot of change ... eyes have been opened and techniques have been developed," Luger said.