ASHEVILLE, N.C. (CN) – Seventy-five people were arrested on drug trafficking charges in Western North Carolina Thursday after a joint undercover operation by Interior Department and the Cherokee Indian Police Department.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke joined officials from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement officers in a press conference in Asheville, North Carolina to announce the arrests.
The officials said the operation began in March and targeted alleged drug traffickers operating in the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation in Jackson County.
Zinke said, during the conference, that he anticipates consumers of illicit drugs will be forced to leave the area when their sources are no longer around.
Charles Addington, deputy director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said most of the traffickers are from outside the Native-American community, but pose a grave threat to its families.
Earlier this year, the tribal council for the area sued several drug manufacturers after Principal Chief Richard Sneed declared substance abuse in Western North Carolina to be a full-blown crisis in 2017.
The complaint noted that the overdose rate in the Qualla Boundary during 2010 was ten times higher than the U.S. all-races overdose rate.
Principal Chief Sneed said in addition to the joint operation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation is working on holistic approach to combat drug use, considering it a health problem.
The Tribal Council recently approved a rehabilitation center on tribal land, Sneed said. He said a significant problem is that there is often a waiting period before rehabilitation is accessible, a time-frame which can result in withdrawal symptoms or relapse.
He said the Cherokee Nation is working to provide services such as pre-therapy and detoxification.
The Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority reported that 14 percent of its patients and 10 percent of tribal members received a diagnosis related to substance abuse in 2012.
When it comes to drug overdoses, “Native American communities are among the hardest hit,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney William Stetzer said during the conference on Thursday.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the scale of the problem, and rather than further stigmatizing victims, we are cracking down on the dealers who are selling out our children, selling out our communities, and selling out our nation,” Zinke said.
According to Zinke, this operation focuses, heavily, on prosecution with a goal that offenders will face the maximum penalty at the Federal level. Already, twelve of those arrested as a result of the joint operation are facing up to 20 years in prison.
“We will find you, we will hunt you down and we will prosecute you,” he said. “Indian Country is now off limits.”
When asked why this law enforcement operation differs from others, Zink said he does not remember any former secretary of the Interior becoming so personally involved in investigations of this nature.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Division of Drug Enforcement and the DEA had previously arrested 57 people in connection with drug trafficking during a two year investigation.
Similar operations have been conducted by the DOI’s joint Opioid Reduction Task Force in other states such as Minnesota and Montana, according to Zinke.