Federal drug enforcement operations in Minnesota are being shuffled with the creation of a new Midwestern field division that officials anticipate will focus heavily on meth saturating the region.
Starting next month, the Minneapolis office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will join Nebraska, Iowa and the Dakotas as part of a new branch based in Omaha. Previously, Minneapolis reported to Chicago's field division, one of the agency's largest.
It is just the second new field division established in more than 20 years by the DEA in an effort to keep up with other federal law enforcement agencies that have more multistate offices. The DEA's Omaha office is scheduled to open July 8.
In a statement announcing the new office, Acting Administrator Robert Patterson said the restructuring was intended to "enhance DEA enforcement efforts within the Great Plain states region and unify drug trafficking investigations under a single special agent in charge."
Minnesota has in recent years emerged as an important hub for Mexican drug cartels' meth trafficking in the Upper Midwest. State and federal authorities combined to seize almost 1,500 pounds of meth in the state last year — the highest total ever recovered. Neighboring states like Wisconsin have meanwhile identified Minnesota as a key source of much of the meth flowing across state lines.
Kenneth Solek, assistant special agent in charge of the Minneapolis-St. Paul office, said the reconfigured field division would pair Minnesota with states through which meth often travels on its way here and with which it shares some of the same drug enforcement challenges.
The new special agent in charge of the Omaha division, Matthew Barden, transferred from the St. Louis division to take the job. Barden, in a statement, said the DEA anticipated that the change "will produce more effective investigations on methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioid trafficking, all of which have a significant impact on the region."
Solek said the move will produce additional drug diversion investigators and task force officers while also raising the possibility of new, smaller offices being opened in Minnesota. The DEA's only imprint in the state is an office space in downtown Minneapolis.
The northern part of the state is being eyed as a potential candidate for a new office, which would need congressional approval. The region has been racked by opioids in recent years: Carlton and St. Louis counties had the two highest rates of opioid-involved overdose mortality in the state from 2011 to 2015. Earlier this year, authorities took down a major heroin ring that trafficked the drug from Chicago to the Twin Cities and up through the twin ports of Duluth and Superior, Wis.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, meanwhile, interpreted the news as a chance for more resources to address the opioid crisis.
"We welcome the addition of the new DEA Division Office in Omaha and the additional law enforcement resources it will provide us in the fight against the deadliest public safety and public health crisis of our time — opioids," said Stanek, whose office recorded a record 175 opioid deaths in the county last year and 38 so far this year.
As for meth, Solek expected a further rise in the drug being intercepted on its way to Minnesota. Previously, local agents estimated law enforcement stops just 10 to 20 percent of the meth bound for the state.
"We knew that there is a lot more coming up here," said Solek. "We weren't getting it all and we may see some more of that. But this will also give us the opportunity to investigate more."