BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Law enforcement officials touted a heightened focus Wednesday on efforts to fight the growing effect of organized crime in the oil-producing region of North Dakota and Montana.
Though it comes with no new funding or staff, the Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force outlined by state and federal officials is meant to better target the criminal networks that authorities have blamed for much of the increase in human trafficking, drug dealing and violent offenses in northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana.
"We are going to focus on the worst of the worst criminal organizations in the Bakken," said Chris Myers, the acting U.S. Attorney for North Dakota.
It comes in response to growing pleas from residents in the two states for more help in dealing with crime in the region that's seen an influx of tens of thousands of oilfield workers in recent years.
"The face of western North Dakota and eastern Montana has changed," said Myers. Organized crime in the region, he said, has become "larger, more sophisticated and more violent."
Officials said the strike force will consist of 50 existing law enforcement agents and four prosecutors who will work in a collaborative effort to attack organized crime. The group will have agents and prosecutors in Bismarck, Dickinson, Minot and Williston.
"We are doing what we can with our existing resources, recognizing that we need additional resources to battle this issue," Myers said.
Much of the crime is being fueled by drug trafficking, said Myers, and Wayne Stenehjem, the North Dakota attorney general.
Stenehjem said the number of drug cases in western North Dakota has more than tripled since 2010, to nearly 1,300.
Bruce Ohr, the leader of the U.S. Justice Department's organized crime task force, said rise in crime in the Bakken region has brought "extraordinary law enforcement challenges" that won't be resolved quickly
Montana U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said the goal is to detect, disrupt and dismantle organized crime. "It is truly a regional problem," he said, calling it an "evil that affects everyone."
Cotter said prosecutors in Montana have convicted 210 people on federal drug charges in cases linked to the Bakken and 50 more are under investigation.
While slumping oil prices have slowed drilling in the region, crime remains a constant, he said.
"The fact that rigs are stacked is having no effect on the level of criminal activity that is occurring in the Bakken," Cotter said.