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How Meth Took Hold on Indian Reservation

The Wind River reservation is not alone. The Bureau of Indian Affairs found that methamphetamine was listed as the greatest threat to Indian communities by police departments.

Mexican drug cartels take advantage of the often complicated law enforcement jurisdictions in Indian Country. Isolated communities are hit the hardest, and sometimes even tribal leaders are not immune, said Heather Dawn Thompson, director of government affairs for the National Congress of American Indians.

Here on the Wind River, a tribal judge, Lynda Munnell-Noah, was arrested in a 2005 drug ring bust and accused of trying to assault and murder a Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officer.

Resources are few, and most reservations don't have treatment centers. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of methamphetamine contacts in Indian Health Services facilities increased by almost 250 percent.

"Even if we arrest people for use or sale, there's almost nothing to do with them in order to help them recover," Thompson said. "Where do you go and how do you pay for it?"

In his 2008 budget, President Bush proposed a $16 million increase in law enforcement funding in Indian Country to help combat methamphetamine, a godsend to police departments like Wind River's, which has only 10 police officers.

"The heartbreaking part of it is, it's had this absolutely devastating effect on our community," Thompson said. "I have tribal leaders coming to my office all the time just crying. I mean, how do you fight this? How do you function as a government when 30 percent of your tribal employees are now using meth?"

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Inside a tribal office, a bulletin board displays meth's effects: In a series of mug shots, a woman deteriorates _ her teeth rotting, her skin collecting scabs. A nearby poster warns that making, selling or using meth around a child will mean prison time.

This is a place where people mostly keep to themselves. They know meth is a huge problem, but they don't want to talk much about it. They fear retaliation.

A jury found that the Sagaste-Cruz ring had distributed more than 99 pounds of meth _ an amount that had a street value of between $4.5 to $6.8 million, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The gang also sold meth on the Rosebud, Pine Ridge and Yankton reservations in South Dakota and Santee Sioux reservation in Nebraska, authorities found.

Sagaste-Cruz and 22 other people were given prison time _ a life sentence, in Sagaste-Cruz' case. His brother, Julio Caesar Sagaste-Cruz, remains a fugitive.


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© 2007 The Associated Press