- Associated Press - Monday, May 22, 2017

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - After more than 70 convictions, North Dakota authorities say they’ve largely dismantled a violent Mexican drug cartel in an investigation that drew in hundreds of agents over a dozen years. But no investigator may have had more to do with their success, they say, than one workaholic lawyer-turned lawman who did almost all his work for free.

Brad Berg helped connect a drug dealer from Mexico who set up shop in North Dakota to the Arelleno Felix cartel and several of the organization’s key players. Now that the case is mostly closed, except for one accused hit man fighting extradition to the U.S., Berg is winning praise from his peers in the wake of documents recently being unsealed in the case.

Berg undertook much of the arduous research in the massive drug conspiracy being tried in federal court in North Dakota. He spent weeks at a time in southern California, working with drug agents there, interviewing suspects and examining gruesome crime scenes. He learned Spanish and read Mexican newspapers on a daily basis. One of the big breaks in the case came when Berg fingered a leading cartel member through his code name.

Drug agents in San Diego quickly discovered that Berg’s intimate knowledge of the drug ring was invaluable, California Department of Justice agent Steve Duncan said.

“He was telling us stuff we didn’t know. He opened doors for us in our case and led us to a new group of people,” Duncan said. “We couldn’t believe how organized he was. He had access to all the information, all the reports. He had spreadsheets. He had instant credibility.”

What Duncan didn’t know is that Berg worked for free from the time he began his law enforcement career in 1995 until his retirement in 2013. Berg estimated that he donated more than 25,000 hours to drug enforcement that would likely equal $1 million in pay and benefits.

“I have never heard of anyone doing the job for free,” said Chris Myers, the U.S. attorney from North Dakota and lead prosecutor in the drug cartel case. “That is what makes Brad so special.”

“It becomes an obsession,” Berg said of his cartel crusade. “And not always a welcome one.”

Law enforcement was the last of several ventures for Berg, who has been a farm equipment dealer, real estate broker, farmer and finally a lawyer - the profession he liked the least.

He gave it up to spend more time with his wife and children. Then he went looking for a charitable activity and chose law enforcement, which Berg can explain only in that he thought it was “something I could do.”

Now retired and living out of state, the 65-year-old Berg launched his final career as a volunteer in the Cass County sheriff’s reserve program in Fargo and was eventually named commander of the group. At 51 he went to the police academy and joined the West Fargo Police Department. He said he got valuable experience serving arrest warrants, which taught him how to find suspects and gain a rapport with criminals, and landed the nickname “Rainman” for his quirky memory and his ability to solve complex puzzles and riddles.

“He’s just terribly intelligent. Almost autistic,” former West Fargo Police Chief Arland Rasmussen said. “He can reel off names, dates, numbers.”

James Fontaine, a California prosecutor, highlighted Berg’s investigative skills during a hearing in the Arelleno Felix case. Fontaine noted that Berg read daily law enforcement bulletins detailing activities of Mexican cartels, including each day’s homicides, major arrests and other illegal activities. Fontaine pointed out that Berg would laboriously translate crime articles from Mexican newspapers.

Berg’s work on the case began in 2005 when Rasmussen recommended him for a Drug Enforcement Administration task force. The group was in the middle of a federal investigation dubbed Operation Speed Racer when Jorge “Sneaky” Arandas, who moved from Tijuana to the Red River Valley to sell drugs, ordered the killing of a Minnesota man over payment for 5 pounds of methamphetamine. Berg, one of the lead investigators, helped track the hit to the Arelleno Felix gang and eventually began working with drug agents in San Diego.

Berg tried to retire in 2009, but it lasted less than a year. He was called back by drug force investigators near the end of the drug war between the Arelleno Felix cartel and the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the notorious drug kingpin extradited to the U.S. in January.

Later, Berg was an expert witness in the case against three members of the Arelleno Felix cartel accused in a foiled murder-for-hire plot. While on the stand for that case in 2011, Berg reeled off the names of lieutenants in the organization, including nicknames such as El Nalgon, Cotorro, Chollo, El Pit, El Gus, El Teo and Five-Four.

Berg went on to conduct training for officers investigating drug trafficking and wrote a document called “A Short History of the Arellano-Felix Organization,” which has been used by agents in investigations and prosecutions.

Berg said he spends most of his time these days making furniture, researching and writing his family history, and spending as much time as possible with his eight grandchildren. He’s agreed to return to Fargo should the accused hit man, Juan Francisco Sillas-Rocha, come to trial.

“We do look forward to the day when he is extradited from Mexico to face justice in a courtroom in Fargo,” Myers said. “That will be a satisfying day.”

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