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Feds arrest alleged drug dealer in Kalispell, seize thousands of fentanyl pills

Hagadone News Network | October 12, 2022 1:00 AM

Federal prosecutors say authorities seized about 12,000 fentanyl pills during the arrest this week of a Mexican national in Kalispell wanted for allegedly trafficking the deadly drug in the Flathead Valley.

Cuauhtemoc Cervantes Samaniego, 29, made an initial appearance in federal court in Missoula on Friday on a criminal complaint of possession with intent to distribute fentanyl and conspiracy to distribute fentanyl.

Samaniego allegedly trafficked fentanyl in the valley beginning in May, federal officials said in an Oct. 7 press release. Investigators earlier this month caught wind of a possible load of fentanyl headed from San Diego to Kalispell, officials said. An individual only known as “Johnny” was behind the shipment.

More details emerged Oct. 4. That’s when investigators learned that Johnny would arrive in Kalispell in a black Honda Civic for a drug deal. Authorities located the vehicle and identified a passenger, later allegedly revealed to be Samaniego, as the man they knew as Johnny.

The driver, not identified by officials, agreed to a search of the vehicle, which turned up roughly 12,000 blue pills containing fentanyl under the center console, according to the press release. They also allegedly found a semi-automatic pistol and seized more than $62,000 in cash.

Samaniego faces between 10 years and life in prison and a $10 million fine if convicted of the most serious charge. He will be required to spend between five years and life under supervision if released from behind bars.

Jail records for Flathead County indicate that Samaniego was booked in the detention center Oct. 5 on a federal hold. He departed Oct. 6. Samaniego remained detained following his appearance in federal court, officials said.

Personnel with the Department of Homeland Security investigated the case, officials said.

THE ARREST and seizure comes less than a month after Gov. Greg Gianforte met with local elected leaders, nonprofit heads, addiction specialists and public safety officials to discuss drug abuse in the county. Sheriff Brian Heino, one of the attendees at the roundtable, told the governor that fentanyl has increasingly overtaken methamphetamine as a drug of choice in the valley. Among the many suggestions pitched by various local leaders at the gathering, Heino asked for a public education campaign.

Crafting a message aimed at preventing fentanyl use struck him as fairly straight forward.

“Hey, fentanyl is going to kill you,” Heino said.

Earlier this year, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudson announced the seizure of 111,611 doses of fentanyl in the state in the first half of 2022. That’s up from 60,557 doses seized in 2021 and 6,663 in 2020, the attorney general said.

Gianforte, a Republican, has linked the rise of fentanyl in Montana to the immigration crisis on the southern border, using it to criticize President Joe Biden’s policies toward the border with Mexico.

While Samaniego sat behind bars on Oct. 6, Gianforte’s office issued a press release blasting Biden for inaction.

“Last fall, I joined my fellow governors to do something President Biden has yet to do: visit the southern border and present commonsense solutions to end the crisis,” Gianforte said in a statement. “Unfortunately, our repeated calls for action have been met with silence while the crisis, and its impacts on Montana, have gotten worse.”

Overdoses leading to death in Montana have increased 1100% since 2017, according to the governor’s office. Knutson, along with other attorneys general, called on Biden to declare fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction in September.