RALEIGH, N.C. – An opioid task force arrested 76 people on drug charges in a sweep of traffickers on western North Carolina tribal land, U.S Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Thursday.
Federal, state, local and tribal officers fanned out in recent days to serve arrest warrants on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' reservation and in nearby communities as the culmination of an undercover operation begun weeks ago, Zinke said at a news conference in Asheville. He said officers seized about 250 pounds (113 kilograms) of heroin, methamphetamine, pills and other drugs with a $2 million street value.
"The message is clear. Indian Country is off-limits to drugs. We will find you. We will hunt you down. We will prosecute you," Zinke said, adding that the probe shows the Trump administration's commitment to fight the opioid crisis.
The tribe's principal chief, Richard Sneed, said reservations have been hit particularly hard by the national opioid crisis.
"It's my sincere hope that this operation will be a model for Indian Country," Sneed said of the investigation that closely involved tribal police. "While this is a national epidemic indeed Indian Country has been hit at a much harder rate."
Law enforcement officials said the arrestees include a mix of people who live on the reservation and outsiders. They said larger suppliers typically come from outside the area and work with local dealers.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has nearly 16,000 enrolled members, more than half of whom live on the tribe's 56,000-acre reservation in western North Carolina, according to its tribal enrollment office. The reservation, known as the Qualla Boundary, is west of Asheville near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Twelve of those arrested face federal charges of possession with intent to distribute heroin, opioids or methamphetamine. Most face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, but several could face life imprisonment due to the circumstances of their charges, according to a news release from federal prosecutors. The rest face local or tribal charges.
"I've been doing this a long time, and there was a time when heroin was a big city, inner city problem. But now we're seeing this affect our rural communities, tribal communities," said William Baxley, a Charlotte-based agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Earlier this year, a federal official told Congress that overdose deaths among Native Americans have risen faster in recent years than for other groups. Native Americans and Alaska Natives saw a fivefold increase in overdose deaths from 1999 to 2015, according to Dr. Michael Toedt, the Indian Health Services' chief medical officer. He testified in March that the rise represents the largest increase of any racial or ethnic group over that time period.
Associated Press writer Mary Hudetz in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.
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