WASHINGTON – Gang leaders have found new territory to conquer – expansive tribal reservations where populations are often low-income and police presence low.
Methamphetamine use has skyrocketed in tribal communities where addiction rates to alcohol and other substances are traditionally high.
The increased drug use can be blamed on the movement of Mexican gangs east through reservation land,according to federal law agents.
Three reservation officials testified Thursday before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee about the growing prevalence of gang violence and drug use in their areas.
Ivan Posey,chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe in Wyoming,said six police officers patrol the 2.2 million-acre reservation,where 13,000 people live.
Fremont County,where the reservation is located,leads the state in violent crime and substance abuse.
Posey said reservations' economic and social vulnerabilities and rural locations have attracted gang activity and drug smuggling.
“It is these vulnerable areas that allows outside influences to target reservations,” he said.
Two young tribe members,both former gang members,also testified via video conference. They asked to remain anonymous out of fear of gang retaliation. Their faces weren't shown,and their voices were disguised.
Matt Haney,police chief of the Colville Reservation in Washington state,said he never knew the prevalence of gang violence and drug use until he joined the Colville force eight months ago. He had worked in non-tribal police agencies.
Since then,he said the reservation of 9,300 residents has had two gang fights,one drive-by shooting and a homicide,all related to gang or drug activity. He said small planes from Canada have repeatedly made landings on the reservation,presumably to smuggle drugs,but his police force of 21 officers hasn't been able to stop it.
Sen. Byron Dorgan,D-N.D.,the committee chairman,said it appears that Mexican gangs have moved east from California to tribal lands. He noted a Wall Street Journal article that said drug production is growing the fastest on American Indian reservations.
Dorgan said he wants more data collected about gang violence and drug use on reservations.
Arnold Moorin,High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program director,said $1.7 million out of about $230 million given to the program has been allocated to tribal agencies. His program is part of the White House drug czar's office.
That amount needs to be re-evaluated,Dorgan said.
“Indian reservations have been left behind a bit in terms of the way the money is doled out,” Dorgan said,mentioning how Congress has played a role in diverting funds to other areas.
He added that,once more data is collected,the committee can evaluate how to improve tribal law enforcement and reduce the gang violence in reservations.
“We are just trying to get our arms around the problem,” he said. “It's hard to solve a problem if you don't understand all the dimensions to it.”