BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A Mexican man was arraigned on federal drug charges Tuesday as part of what authorities have described as a wide-ranging conspiracy to sell methamphetamine in the Bakken oil patch and elsewhere in Montana.
Marco Antonio Morales-Roa pleaded not guilty during an appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby in Billings.
Morales-Roa, who has been in custody on illegal entry charges since his Sept. 20 arrest, could face decades in prison if convicted. Authorities say he distributed 50 grams or more of methamphetamine in Richland County and elsewhere in Montana beginning in March.
Federal law enforcement officials have linked the case to grand jury indictments unsealed this month against members of a drug trafficking ring that authorities say brought in large quantities of meth from Washington state. So far, 12 defendants including Morales-Roa face drugs and weapons charges in the wide-ranging case.
The case highlights the increased criminal activity seen in the Bakken area as drug traffickers seek to profit off thousands of workers who have descended on the oil patch along Montana-North Dakota border.
Separately, two California men were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after authorities say they distributed large amounts of drugs from Billings to areas across Montana including the Bakken.
Eliseo Lopez Martinez was sentenced to 27 years in prison while co-defendant Tomas Alvarado got 30 years during a hearing Monday before U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon in Helena. They were accused of selling of heroin, cocaine and more than 92 pounds of meth.
The two Turlock, Calif., men pleaded guilty to a single count each of conspiracy to possess illegal drugs with intent to distribute. They earlier forfeited almost $57,000 in cash and several firearms seized during the investigation. Additional drug and firearms charges were dropped as part of plea agreements.
Alvarado appealed his sentence to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.