Data Data Data

Bethel, Alaska has been called “a bootleggers paradise.” Surrounded by 56 small villages with varying degrees of prohibition, my home base of 6,000 people has no limits on importing alcohol. People can and do buy cases of liquor have it delivered to the airport. Once in the regional hub, it travels by snowmobile, boat, and plance across millions of acres of low tundra, rivers, and mountains to customers in places that have banned it.
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I recently completed a fellowship with the Alaska Press Club for KYUK which asked Alaskan journalists to tell the story of alcohol by digging into the data beneath the state’s alcohol reality and the stories it reveals. I chose to focus on bootlegging: the illegal movement of liquor to the dozens of villages in remote Alaska that have voted to ban the importation, sale, or possession of alcohol.

The villages are traditional Alaska Native communities in which a cash-subsistence economy dominates. There are few jobs and people work together to catch fish, hunt moose, and live life in one of the most challenging environments in the world.

The economics of illegal alcohol are staggering. People in Bethel can buy alcohol from Anchorage via air carrier, or by bringing it back in their luggage. There are no local stores now (although that may change over the next several months.)

While the 56 villages surrounding Bethel are indeed isolated, they’re simultaneously very connected to the Bethel. With the Kuskokwim river freezes in the winter, the river turns into a literal ice highway.
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Trucks, snowmobiles, and ATV’s make the trip hundreds of miles from village to Bethel and back. During the summer, a fleet of 16′ Lund skiffs run people to medical appointments, groceries to villages, and inevitably, thousands of bottles of booze. Several airlines fly multiple trips from Bethel daily. With no limits on importing alcohol to the hub Bethel, a highly sophisticated illicit market has taken hold. What was a $10 plastic jug of R&R blended whiskey in Anchorage becomes a $300 item in remote coastal villages.The further from Bethel, the more expensive the bottle.

Life is tough in the YK Delta. Be it from alcohol, economics, historical trauma, or otherwise, the standard of life suffers in southwest Alaska. One in two women have experienced sexual or partner violence. Crime is inextricably linked with alcohol. Suicide rates are astronomical. The king salmon that define a large part of the identity of Yup’ik people have been in decline for years. My challenge was to tell that story. With data.

It’s a subject worth several books and a lifetime of learning. But as a small market, general assignment radio reporter, I guess I signed up for short deadlines and dozens of beats.

The fellowship included five intensive days of working with Lam Thuy Vo and Abraham Hyatt, two of today’s top journalist/hacker/etc. types.

PART 1 – Troopers

I asked the Alaska Department of Public Safety for information about bootlegging incidents over the last several years. I’ve hit a million brick walls in my time as a reporter, but sometimes when you ask, you receive. State leaders pulled a custom query from the decades-old database, ASPIN , that broke down bootlegging “incidents” by date and location.

The data showed a robust bootlegging economy spread across my region. I connected with a three-person team in Bethel that chases bottles all day, everyday. As they work in plainclothes and try to be discreet as they pursue cases big and small, they typically don’t take many interview.

I wasn’t allowed to photograph their faces. State PIOs did not let me spend time with them on the job. That will be for another story…
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PART 2 – Akiak

The WAANT (Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team) is based in Bethel and cant’ be in every village every day. Tribal governments have a law enforcement duty and are well situated in villages meet the bootleggers where they work. Four Kuskowkwim villages have joined forces. I visited Akiak, home of Iditarod musher, alcohol counselor, tribal leader, and Mike Williams. He’s lost six brothers to alcohol.

Akiak sets up a checkpoint where the ice highway meets the villages.

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During times when they know booze will be moving: payday, dog races, basketball tournaments, etc, the tribal police set up a checkpoint to search everyone coming into the villages. An hours drive from Bethel, a bottle of whiskey costs $80, a massive markup over Anchorage prices. They’ve seized 500 bottles this winter from the checkpoint. State law enforcement says they can’t help with the checkpoints for legal reasons.
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Tribal policemen, however, working under direction from their tribal governing bodies log long hours trying to keep alcohol out. They say it’s easier to deal with a bottle at the river, rather than after someone’s drunk and violent.

PART 3 – Postal Inspectors

Founded by Benjamin Franklin, the United States Postal Inspection Service has a unique mission in Alaska. A small team works to root out liquor being sent by mail across the state.

The tricks of the trade are evidently well known. Burping: Open the bottles, squeeze out the air so that they don’t make any “glugging” noises when moved, and duct-tape them shut. Others fill orange juice bottles with liquor.

While my region’s alcohol issue is pervasive and hard to corner, I’m very glad I was able to speak with some of the people on the front lines of trying to stop the illegal movement of liquor. It’s a huge concern for KYUK’s listeners and a topic worth much more coverage. I’ll showcase the other fellows’ projects in the next post.


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