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Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyo. — Natasha Washakie has lived the depths of addiction to methamphetamine and come back up.
She’s seen friends trade sex for meth. She’s seen one get her own children hooked on the drug, which among its side effects suppresses the appetite.
“We used to joke that she kept her whole family high so she wouldn’t have to feed them,” said the 28-year-old Northern Arapaho woman, who has been clean for 15 months after a three-year addiction.
Washakie knows the drug, almost unheard of here before 2000, is slowly destroying this west-central Wyoming reservation.
She also knows where it comes from: a Mexican drug gang that arrived here more than four years ago hoping to shift the alcohol addiction of many tribal members to meth.
According to information gathered during an investigation that has so far led to more than 17 arrests, that gang is the Sinaloan Cowboys, an organization with a sophisticated structure and a Fortune 500 business plan: When you’re a drug cartel looking to expand, go where the addicts are.
Over a period of more than four years, the gang funneled nearly 100 pounds of meth with a value of over $6.5 million into and around the reservation.
At least three gang members were dispatched from a Utah-based cell to reservation towns. They rented houses and met girlfriends. Using American Indian women, they gained entree to the reservation and established a network of more than a dozen dealers, many of them American Indians, officials said.
“They identified the reservation as an addict-rich environment, a population that for years had been addicted to alcohol,” said Robert Murray, an assistant U.S. attorney in Cheyenne, who said that information on the gang’s plan to infiltrate the reservation had been garnered from multiple sources and that the investigation was ongoing.
A plan born of deep cynicism, it was also a phenomenal success. In a matter of five years, tribal leaders say, meth went from a marginal drug to a virtual torrent on this 2.2 million-acre reservation.
But from the perspective of gang members, the reservation had an important plus: Jurisdictional barriers normally prevent state and local police from operating on tribal lands. And despite the apparent poverty of Indian Country, many tribal members receive monthly checks from mineral royalties or other tribal income.
Members of the Mexican gang discovered that alcohol sales on other reservations spiked after members received their checks, sources told investigators, and they believed they could tap into that cash.
“It was natural to try to transfer that addiction from alcohol to meth,” Murray said.
Tribal officials say the cost to the community is enormous.
Women are having miscarriages because of the drug. Addicts steal from family members to support their habits. Abuse of the elderly is on the rise.
(Posted on November 9, 2005)