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Tribal police: Cartels drive reservations’ drug problems

Colville official among group testifying before Senate committee

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Matt Haney, police chief of the Colville Confederated Tribes, has two officers by day and three by night to patrol the 2,275 square miles of reservation under his jurisdiction.

Even with those limited resources, in recent years his small department has seized more than 45,000 marijuana plants in outdoor growing operations he said are financed and directed by Mexican drug gangs.

Vast areas and small police forces are among the reasons drug cartels think reservations are “great places” to do their work, he said: “I’m not naïve enough to believe we’re catching anywhere near the total number of marijuana grows on our reservation.”

Haney was one of four witnesses who told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Wednesday about increasing gang influence and drug smuggling on tribal lands all over the country. Mexican cartels also target Indian reservations because a poor populace can be recruited into their drug supply chains.

More than half a million marijuana plants have been seized in Washington state this year, most from outdoor growing operations thought to be operated by Mexican drug gangs.

Haney, who told senators he thinks tribal governments are barely making a dent in the cartel’s efforts, said expanding a federal program known as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas could help coordinate drug control agencies in certain regions. Washington state was designated as a high-intensity area in 1996 but only certain counties, including Spokane, have task forces operating. Haney thinks if the federal government establishes one in the Colville Reservation, they could see a quick return on their investment.

“There’s never been a HIDTA in Indian Country,” he said. “What I’m saying is why not try one?”

The director of the program, Arnold Moorin, agreed Indian reservations are used by cartels because of their remote locations and poverty. The program has not designated a new drug trafficking area since 2001, he added.

Senators on the committee, while not considering any legislation, seemed receptive to the idea of expanding HIDTA to tribal areas. The program “could serve as a model for the development of a collaborative effort between individual tribes to provide law enforcement assistance to each other,” Sen. Maria Cantwell said in a statement.

The committee chairman, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D, said the government might have overlooked Indian Country’s needs when it designated the areas: “This question of dealing with drug use on Indian reservations and gang activity, it seems to me that’s been left behind a bit in terms of where the money has gone.”

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