Following the 2017 closure of the previous office, a Drug Enforcement Administration office will return to Garden City in the near future, government representatives officially announced Monday.

The Garden City-area office — a specific address had not yet been released — will be Kansas’ third, joining locations in Wichita and Topeka and serving the whole of western Kansas. In a news release, the DEA stated the office would be staffed with six new law enforcement agents, including two DEA special agents and four task force officers.

The announcement, given by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, DEA St. Louis Division Special Agent in Charge William Callahan, director of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Jeff Stam, Kansas Bureau of Investigation director Kirk Thompson and Garden City Police Chief Michael Utz, comes months after preliminary talks of the office’s reopening in February, when officials said they hoped to open the local office before the end of 2019.

Callahan said U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall’s offices also made the reinstatement of the office possible.

Callahan said that, since he stepped into his position in July 2018, he and his staff have been assessing the impact of the closure to the Garden City office and spoken to stakeholders about its reopening. Though the area was technically being covered by the Wichita office, Callahan said, the closure left a “enforcement and intelligence gap” for drug trafficking in western Kansas, and the St. Louis division began a campaign to reopen the office.

The office was originally closed because of a reduction in special agent positions, he said. With the reinstatement of more than 100 positions nationwide in 2018, the reinstatement was possible.

“We’re committed more than ever to the public safety and to face the drug threats in western Kansas, as well as the entire state,” Callahan said.

The DEA’s main target among drug threats is the widespread use and distribution of opioids and methamphetamines, Callahan said. Opioid overdose deaths, including fentanyl, number in the tens of thousands a year — or 200 a day — nationally, and Stam referred to it as a national emergency. In Kansas, there are about 11.8 drug overdose deaths for every 100,000 people each year, Callahan said.

Meth in Kansas is primarily produced in Mexico and smuggled by cartels across the U.S.-Mexico border, pushing dangerous and cheap substances into Kansas communities, Callahan said. Fentanyl is also distributed widely by Mexican cartels, he said.

Kansas, and southwest Kansas in particular, is a pathway from Mexico to larger U.S. cities, making the area a prime location for drug traffickers, Moran said.

“It makes southwest Kansas, in my view, a more important place to be for our own safety but also for the safety of the rest of the country,” Moran said.

And western Kansas’ diverse population, including cities with majority-Hispanic populations, could make the region a target for two of the strongest Mexican drug cartels, Callahan said.

“With the large presence of good, hard-working Mexican nationals working, living and raising families here in western Kansas, Mexican transnational criminal organizations ... will seek to take advantage of the diverse population and enhance their drug operations. Our presence and our partnership sends a clear message to these drug traffickers: You are not welcome here. You will be investigated and brought to justice,” Callahan said.

Like its predecessor, the new DEA office will once again work with local law enforcement agencies throughout western Kansas, offering them access to DEA intelligence, anti-narcotics training and community outreach efforts. The office will also hold biannual drug take-back days, where officers will encourage locals to safely dispose of old medicine. Locals can learn more about the next drug take-back day, scheduled for Oct. 26, at takebackday.dea.gov.

Thompson said the KBI is concerned about the distribution of illegal drugs and “associated violence” in southwest Kansas, prompting the agency’s desire to move more anti-narcotics resources into western Kansas. The ability for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to exchange ideas and share resources in the region will make a significant difference in the local and national fight against drugs, he said.

Utz agreed, saying the office will make it easier for local law enforcement to deploy the necessary resources to combat drug and violent crime. Like the U.S. has seen on a larger scale, Finney County has seen an increase in prescription drug abuse and drug-related violent crimes involving firearms. Utz urged community members to report any suspicious activity.

Utz declined to comment on whether recent violent crimes, including the shooting death of Garden City restaurant owner Ernie Ortiz, were drug related, citing ongoing investigations. Finney County Undersheriff John Andrews told The Telegram that two recent shootings in Finney County were drug-related and that the sheriff’s office has seen an uptick in drug-related crime.

The situation is currently “not getting any better” and will need to be addressed on a local, state and national level, Andrews said.

Callahan said that besides opioid and meth concerns, Kansas has also seen an increase in cocaine. Drug-related violence spans a number of motives, he said, from fights over distribution territories to stashes of substances and money to fights over something as trivial as control of a telephone, he said.

Moran, who contributed to the office's reopening by securing funding through the Senate appropriations committee, said the fight against drug trafficking in Kansas would be born of two goals: community leaders reducing the demand for drugs and local law enforcement having the resources to quickly and effectively respond to drug crimes in their communities.

The increased prevalence of drug crimes was the result of a perceived lack of law enforcement presence, he said. The reopened office is a step to change that.

“It’s a message, but it’s more than a message because it will have results to get drug dealers off our streets,” Moran said.

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.