Once limited to cities along the southern border, the influence of Mexican drug cartels has spread to smaller American towns across the country, including several in the state of Montana.
Jami Rak has lived in Billings, Montana her entire life. The largest city in Big Sky Country sits northeast of the iconic Yellowstone National Park known for its stunning natural beauty. Now, she said, it’s become unrecognizable.
“It’s not safe here anywhere anymore,” Rak said.
The lifelong resident said it’s been sad to see her hometown state struggle — a sentiment that’s backed up by crime trends that concern authorities.
Robberies, aggravated assaults and rape have risen statewide, per state-reported crime data.
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said the state has never seen anything like this before. He thinks the rise in crime can be traced back to one place: Mexican drug cartels.
“We have specific intelligence that primarily two drug cartels based out of Mexico are operating here in Montana on a very large scale,” Knudsen said.
Law enforcement concerns about the cartel’s increasing presence became a reality in December, when an undercover investigation exposed a multimillion-dollar drug trafficking network in Butte.
Authorities arrested 22 people, three of whom were associates of the Sinaloa Cartel — the violent group once run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Some authorities point to the incident as evidence of the drug cartels’ expansion to smaller American cities.
“We’re 1,800 miles away from Sinaloa and 1,200 miles from the Mexican border, so it’s pretty shocking,” said Sheriff Ed Lester with Butte-Silver Bow Law Enforcement.
Lester said the massive cartel bust was a first for his community of fewer than 40,000 people. But he fears it won’t be the last.
“When you take that group of people down, you’re probably likely to see another group step up,” he said.
For drug kingpins, the profit margins can be massive.
Traffickers along the southern border purchase fentanyl tablets for as little as $1 each but those same tablets can be sold for upwards of $70 a piece, Knudsen said.
In the first three quarters of 2022, authorities in Montana seized twice as much fentanyl than they did in the previous four years combined.
“It’s an invasion,” said Sgt. Jay Nelson, a trooper with Montana Highway Patrol, who pointed to the “skyrocketing” fentanyl seizures.
The cartels are notorious for smuggling their drugs and weapons via American highways, putting Nelson and other highway troopers on the frontlines of the fight.
It all starts at the U.S.-Mexico border, often at main entry points such as Tecate and Tijuana, where drug mules smuggle narcotics into the country. Once across the border, the drugs end up in stash houses across Southern California. From there, traffickers load them onto vehicles or in packages sent through the postal service.
Some make it 1,100 miles north to Butte, where local dealers move the drugs to nearby cities including Missoula, Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman and Billings for street-level distribution.
Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte believes the problem will only get worse unless the southern border is secured.
“It’s ripping families apart, it’s making our communities unsafe,” Gianforte said. “There isn’t a single community in the state of Montana that’s not impacted by our porous border.”
Rak agrees. Just last year, her 21-year-old son Keaton came within an inch of death after accidentally overdosing on fentanyl. Now, she wont even walk the streets of Billings alone.
“You can’t trust anyone, you can’t go anywhere freely,” she said.