This alarming development was revealed in a recent report, which highlighted the cartels' strategic choice of operation locations.
Stephanie Iron Shooter, the American Indian health director for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, told NBC News, "They know who to choose. Just like any other prey-predator situation — that’s how it is."
The cartels have discovered that fentanyl, a notoriously deadly drug, fetches nearly 20 times its usual price in the remote expanses of Montana. The state's 1.2 million residents are scattered across 150,000 square miles of rugged terrain, making it an attractive market for these illicit substances.
Former Drug Enforcement Administration investigator Stacy Zinn explained that the cartels initially target Native Americans by offering a free supply of drugs, effectively turning them into addicts. "The cartel will send out their advance team or individuals to get to know who’s distributing small amounts on this reservation, who can we get our claws into," Zinn said. "And then when they do that, then they own them. We’ve seen that over and over."
Montana's vast remoteness aids the cartels, as law enforcement already struggles to cover the extensive territories. The situation is further complicated when drug trafficking occurs on Native American land. Local and state officials are prohibited from arresting tribal members, and tribal forces, often underfunded and understaffed, are largely barred from arresting outsiders on the reservation. This legal loophole provides a safe haven for the cartels to operate in Montana, a state that has become increasingly appealing due to the high demand for drugs.
A counterfeit fentanyl pill, which costs less than 25 cents to produce in Mexico, can sell for $3 to $5 in cities like Seattle and Denver, where drug markets are more established. However, in remote parts of Montana, the same pill can fetch up to $100, NBC reported. This lucrative profit margin makes the cartels’ 1,300-mile journey from the southern border more than worthwhile. "The profits are just out of this world," Zinn told the outlet.
The drug crisis has disproportionately impacted Native American communities, which make up less than 7% of Montana’s population, according to Census data. The overdose death rate among Native Americans was more than double that of white Montana residents in the decade leading up to 2020.
Between 2017 and 2020, Montana’s opioid overdose death rate almost tripled, with nearly 8 per 100,000 succumbing to drugs in that year, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Marvin Weatherwax, Jr., a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and representative of the 15th district in the Montana House of Representatives, told NBC, "Right now it’s as if fentanyl is raining on our reservation."
In response to the escalating crisis, some tribes have taken matters into their own hands despite their limited resources. The Northern Cheyenne tribe, for instance, formed a vigilante group called the People’s Camp to combat the surge in violent crime and drug trafficking.
The tribe also filed a 2022 lawsuit against the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, accusing the federal government of breaching its obligation to keep reservation residents safe by failing to provide adequate law enforcement officers.