Drug gangs taking over U.S. public lands
The Associated Press
March 1, 2010
SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. - Not far from Yosemite's waterfalls and in the middle of California's redwood forests, Mexican drug gangs are quietly commandeering U.S. public land to grow millions of marijuana plants and using smuggled immigrants to cultivate them.
Pot has been grown on public lands for decades, but Mexican traffickers have taken it to a whole new level: using armed guards and trip wires to safeguard sprawling plots that in some cases contain tens of thousands of plants offering a potential yield of more than 30 tons of pot a year.
"Just like the Mexicans took over the methamphetamine trade, they've gone to mega, monster gardens," said Brent Wood, a supervisor for the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. He said Mexican traffickers have "supersized" the marijuana trade.
Interviews conducted by The Associated Press with law enforcement officials across the country showed that Mexican gangs are largely responsible for a spike in large-scale marijuana farms over the last several years.
Local, state and federal agents found about a million more pot plants each year between 2004 and 2008, and authorities say an estimated 75 percent to 90 percent of the new marijuana farms can be linked to Mexican gangs.
In 2008 alone, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, police across the country confiscated or destroyed 7.6 million plants from about 20,000 outdoor plots.
Growing marijuana in the U.S. saves traffickers the risk and expense of smuggling their product across the border and allows gangs to produce their crops closer to local markets.
Distribution also becomes less risky. Once the marijuana is harvested and dried on the hidden farms, drug gangs can drive it to major cities, where it is distributed to street dealers and sold along with pot that was grown in Mexico.
About the only risk to the Mexican growers, experts say, is that a stray hiker or hunter could stumble onto a hidden field.
The remote plots are nestled under the cover of thick forest canopies in places such as Sequoia National Park, or hidden high in the rugged-yet-fertile Sierra Nevada Mountains. Others are secretly planted on remote stretches of Texas ranch land.
All of the sites are far from the eyes of law enforcement, where growers can take the time needed to grow far more potent marijuana. Farmers of these fields use illegal fertilizers to help the plants along, and use cloned female plants to reduce the amount of seed in the bud that is dried and eventually sold.
Mexican gang plots can often be distinguished from those of domestic-based growers, who usually cultivate much smaller fields with perhaps 100 plants and no security measures.
Some of the fields tied to the drug gangs have as many as 75,000 plants, each of which can yield at least a pound of pot annually, according to federal data reviewed by the AP.
The Sequoia National Forest in central California is covered in a patchwork of pot fields, most of which are hidden along mountain creeks and streams, far from hiking trails. It's the same situation in the nearby Yosemite, Sequoia and Redwood national parks.
Even if they had the manpower to police the vast wilderness, authorities say terrain and weather conditions often keep them from finding the farms, except accidentally.
Many of the plots are encircled with crude explosives and are patrolled by guards armed with AK-47s who survey the perimeter from the ground and from perches high in the trees.
The farms are growing in sophistication and are increasingly cultivated by illegal immigrants, many of whom have been brought to the U.S. from Michoacan.
Growers once slept among their plants, but many of them now have campsites up to a mile away equipped with separate living and cooking areas.
"It's amazing how they have changed the way they do business," Wood said. "It's their domain."
Drug gangs have also imported marijuana experts and unskilled labor to help find the best land or build irrigation systems, Wood said.
Moyses Mesa Barajas had just arrived in eastern Washington state from the Mexican state of Michoacan when he was approached to work in a pot field. He was taken almost immediately to a massive crop hidden in the Wenatchee National Forest, where he managed the watering of the plants.
He was arrested in 2008 in a raid and sentenced to more than six years in federal prison. Several other men wearing camouflage fled before police could stop them.
"I thought it would be easy," he told the AP in a jailhouse interview. "I didn't think it would be a big crime."
Stewart said recruiters look for people who still have family in Mexico, so they can use them as leverage to keep the farmers working - and to keep them quiet.
"If they send Jose from the hometown and Jose rips them off, they are going to go after Jose's family," Stewart said. "It's big money."
When the harvest is complete, investigators say, pot farm workers haul the product in garbage bags to dropoff points that are usually the same places where they get resupplied with food and fuel.
Agents routinely find the discarded remnants of camp life when they discover marijuana fields. It's not uncommon to discover pots and pans, playing cards and books, half-eaten bags of food, and empty beer cans and liquor bottles.
But the growers leave more than litter to worry about. They often use animal poisons that can pollute mountain streams and groundwater meant for legitimate farmers and ranchers.
Because of the tree cover, armed pot farmers can often take aim at law enforcement before agents ever see them.
"They know the terrain better than we do," said Lt. Rick Ko, a drug investigator with the sheriff's office in Fresno, Calif. "Before we even see them, they can shoot us."
In Wisconsin, the number of confiscated plants grew sixfold between 2003 and 2008, to more than 32,000 found in 2008.
Wisconsin agents used to find a few dozen marijuana plants on national forest land. Now they discover hundreds or even thousands.
"If we are getting 40 to 50 percent (of fields), I think we are doing well," said Michigan State Police 1st Lt. Dave Peltomaa. "I really don't think we are close to 50 percent. We don't have the resources."
Vast amounts of pot are still smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico. Federal officials report nearly daily hauls of several hundred to several thousand pounds seized along the border. But drug agents say the boom in domestic growing is a sign of diversification by traffickers.
Officials say arrests of farmers are rare, though the sheriff's office in Fresno did nab more than 100 suspects during two weeks of raids last summer. But when field hands are arrested, most only tell authorities about their specific job.
When asked who hired him, Mesa repeatedly told an AP reporter, "I can't tell you."
Washington State Patrol Lt. Richard Wiley said hired hands either do not know who the boss is or are too frightened to give details.
"They are fearful of what may happen to them if they were to snitch on these coyote people," Wiley said of the recruiters and smugglers who bring marijuana farmers into the U.S. "That's organized crime of a different fashion. There's nothing to gain from (talking), but there's a lot to lose."
June 2021 May 2021 April 2021 March 2021 February 2021 January 2021 December 2020 November 2020 October 2020 September 2020 August 2020 July 2020 June 2020 May 2020 April 2020 March 2020 February 2020 January 2020 December 2019 November 2019 October 2019 September 2019 August 2019 July 2019 June 2019 May 2019 April 2019 March 2019 February 2019 January 2019 December 2018 November 2018 October 2018 September 2018 August 2018 July 2018 June 2018 May 2018 April 2018 March 2018 February 2018 January 2018 December 2017 November 2017 October 2017 September 2017 August 2017 July 2017 June 2017 May 2017 April 2017 March 2017 February 2017 January 2017 December 2016 November 2016 October 2016 September 2016 August 2016 July 2016 June 2016 May 2016 April 2016 March 2016 February 2016 January 2016 December 2015 November 2015 October 2015 September 2015 August 2015 July 2015 June 2015 May 2015 April 2015 March 2015 February 2015 January 2015 December 2014 November 2014 October 2014 September 2014 August 2014 July 2014 June 2014 May 2014 April 2014 March 2014 February 2014 January 2014 December 2013 November 2013 October 2013 September 2013 August 2013 July 2013 June 2013 May 2013 April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 June 2012 May 2012 April 2012 March 2012 February 2012 January 2012 December 2011 November 2011 October 2011 September 2011 August 2011 July 2011 June 2011 May 2011 April 2011 March 2011 February 2011 January 2011 December 2010 November 2010 October 2010 September 2010 August 2010 July 2010 June 2010 May 2010 April 2010 March 2010 February 2010 January 2010 December 2009 November 2009 October 2009 September 2009 August 2009 July 2009 June 2009 May 2009 April 2009 March 2009 February 2009 January 2009 December 2008