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Drug gangs taking over US public lands

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Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby ERIC » Mon Mar 01, 2010 9:54 am

Associated Press wrote:AP IMPACT: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

By ALICIA A. CALDWELL and MANUEL VALDES (AP)
March 1, 2010
http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/art ... gD9E5PQH01


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."

Valdes reported from Pasco, Wash.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby rayfound » Mon Mar 01, 2010 10:55 am

What am I most afraid of in the backcountry?

Not Bears, Cougars, snakes, or cliffs. Its the Mexican Drug Cartel that scares me the most.
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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby gdurkee » Mon Mar 01, 2010 12:23 pm

The other thing I started thinking about is where does the dope for the medical marijuana stores come from? Why, your National Parks and Forests, of course. Seems like if they're going to allow it (and I have nothing against that), then they need to allow it grown somewhere that doesn't cause such major environmental damage and potential danger to visitors and rangers.

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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby rlown » Mon Mar 01, 2010 2:08 pm

i would think their farms are of a lower elevation than most of us visit. Any chance some Seki ranger might have a map of where we don't really want to visit to avoid such problems?
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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby gdurkee » Mon Mar 01, 2010 2:15 pm

It would seem that would be an excellent idea. I'm not sure they'd do it, though. One of those security things, though I don't really agree. Seems like a person could make a very generalized map of where growers have been -- that's not especially a state secret.

I'll look into it, but don't hold your breath... .

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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby trav867 » Mon Mar 01, 2010 5:21 pm

Yeah, agreed rlown- at least at lower elevations most of us are usually on the trail, not bushwacking through underbrush. Definitely something to keep in mind though.
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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby balzaccom » Mon Mar 01, 2010 7:23 pm

I was told a few years ago not to take the trail down to the Kings River in Kings Canyon...because of exactly this problem. SO yes, the rangers have at least some idea
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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby oldranger » Tue Mar 02, 2010 10:43 am

It is not likely that anyone will tell you that there is a plantation located at point x. My experience has been that you will be advised "not to go" somewhere. Up in Oregon non law enforcement BLM people have stumbled into "grows" that were known to L.E. folks. As a result LE, at least in Central Oregon will tell field folks not to go into a certain area. That doesn't do the public much good though. As a rule in the Central and Southern Sierra most of the plantations that have been found are less than 3,000 ft elevation and there is always a water source nearby. I would say that above 4,000 feet you can relax. George can probably confirm this. Since a key mode of operation is to find new locations I don't think knowing specific past locations is of value other than to learn the characteristics of those locations--relatively low elevations and water source, and marginally tillable land. If you are out and about and come across black plastic hose stop and turn around! I almost did that once in the lower reaches of the Wallowas once before I realized the "black tubing" was really semi buried communications cable.

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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby gdurkee » Tue Mar 02, 2010 11:09 am

Mike's right, you're not going to get an exact map of locations, which I don't think anyone is suggesting. Also, a few years back a seasonal ranger wrote a long essay on how money was being appropriated and brought in some facts about growing operations and LE. He was accused of endangering the security of operations and came close to being fired. It was totally bogus and nothing that hadn't appeared in major newspapers, but there's a certain lingering paranoia and caution amongst some of us always-endangered species.... . (Hint, when writing a screed against the NPS, never criticize a Chief Ranger by name).

That said, it's worth noting that grows are being found higher and higher -- certainly up to 4,000 - 5,000 feet on the west side of the Sierra and I think one was found around 7,000 on the east side. Also, they can be a really long way from water -- these guys are hauling in thousands and thousands of feet of drip line. Really too bad that energy can't be harnessed for Good and not Evil.

I think it's reasonable to at least say to be extremely careful in brushy terrain below about 5,000 feet -- especially in Mineral King. NPS has a concerted effort against these guys that's been going on for years but it's one of those endless struggles where they just keep coming back because the profit margin vs. risk is so favorable to them.

As a side note, there was an owl (??) study some years back where there was an anomaly in their distribution. After hearing the poisons the growers were bringing in, the researcher thought that might explain the low numbers of owls in one area -- being poisoned by mice eating the rodenticides. Another reason these guys have to be stopped.

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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby Ozark Flip » Tue Mar 02, 2010 1:16 pm

I agree with the lower elevation locations. In fact, these large scale pot farms are almost always in the NF at 1-3K elevations....far fewer farms in the NP compared to the NF.

But, IMHO, even the ground growing is phasing out to indoor growers. Seems like the "in" thing among modern growers is to purchase a large house and fill it with indoor plants.
Last edited by Ozark Flip on Sat Feb 23, 2013 10:07 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby Bad Man From Bodie » Tue Mar 02, 2010 3:21 pm

Ever watch the movie Homegrown with ole Billy Bob Thornton?? Pretty much sums it up if you ask me. The structure and complexity of these rings are far beyond what any of us can understand. Poor kids get stuck with the dirty work and risk. Folks will try to grow pot anywhere they can minimize the risk of getting busted including elevations over 7000ft, (it’s called weed for a reason). I however am WAY more concerned about stumbling upon a meth lab vs a pot farm though (now that would be way sketchy)!
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Re: Drug gangs taking over US public lands

Postby giantbrookie » Tue Mar 02, 2010 10:27 pm

As a veteran field geologist and researcher and a supervisor of graduate students, this has been a major concern of mine. My first graduate students field season ended (fortunately without him getting hurt or even shot at) when he ran into an armed guard while off trail N of Hwy 70 in the Feather River canyon near Caribou Jct. This led to a mammoth bust in that area. The problem with a "map" is that where they are at any given time is not going to be a good predictor for where they'll be the next season (presuming that known locations were busted and cleaned out). With my student we thought the coast was clear owing to a very large bust in the general vicinity the fall before he began work.

The cartels have made things more difficult for folks such as geologists because the growers and guards aren't local. In what seems like the distant past, the rules of engagement (for geologists) were that one spent some time at local bars getting to know the locals who would tell you where you shouldn't go. Now this no longer works. I tend to do a lot of advance planning in terms of cover (one area worked well as a field area because of a recent burn--no place to hide a plantation from surveillance), elevation, location of water, potential access roads, etc., in trying to ascertain how likely an area is to have plantations in it. I also have my students contact the local USFS folks to get any recent info on growing patterns. Back in the 80's and 90's, I ended up having two encounters with armed folks who were no doubt guarding some sort of (local) growing operations (both times in places that were close enough to 'civilization' that I didn't think to use the protocol noted above). Of course there are other hazards, too. Some of them folk down on the rivers can be downright scary too and I think I can count at least 3 encounters that gave me the willies.
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/ees/facu ... ayshi.html
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