It’s marijuana time in California, and every season seems to bring bigger, more destructive grows in our protected public lands. Mexican organized crime has moved in with a vengeance, with little pushback from authorities until late in the season.
It sounds like the criminals are winning. More pot is being grown and there is lots more violence. Local hunters are hikers are afraid to go into the Mendocino National Forest because of the threat. The worsening violence is driving even Mexicans out of the business. Sheriff Tom Allman said if public lands are not taken back from the criminals soon, “then we may get to the point of no return.”
One Mexican former grower mused that California might “end up like Mexico.”
Unfortunately, the increased incursion of Mexican thugs coincides with a state budget stretched to the maximum and little interest in Sacramento of protecting parks and forests. The New York Times reported on July 29, “Budget Cuts Endanger State’s Marijuana Eradication Program” which could mean the surrender of part or all of California’s treasured public land to criminal invaders.
Massive pot eradication operation underway, ABC-KGO TV San Francisco, July 28, 2011
Now underway in Northern California is one of the largest marijuana eradication efforts in state history. “Operation Full Court Press” is taking place in the Mendocino National Forest, which reaches into six counties. More than 100 people have been arrested so far, but who’s behind these illegal operations? Our media partner California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center For Investigative Reporting has just completed a major project looking inside the marijuana trade.
For years, local and federal authorities have been trying to put a stop to illegal marijuana coming out of California. Last year they seized some 7 million plants, much of it is grown on public lands. It’s even been found in national parks, including Yosemite.
In Mendocino County, officers have been training for a joint local, state and federal eradication operation. It is the largest series of raids ever conducted in this part of Northern California. Last week, the raids started and it was spearheaded by Sheriff Tom Allman.
“We’re at a fork in the road and if we don’t make an aggressive push right now to take back some of our public lands, then we may get to the point of no return,” Allman said.
That battle to take back the land is increasingly turning violent. Last year drug agents killed two armed Mexican men at remote pot farms in Mendocino County.
“I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘My family has hunted in the Mendocino National Forest for five generations and we don’t go there anymore because every time we go there, we hear shots being fired around or people have literally walked into our hunting camp and said get out of here,’” said Allman.
And it isn’t just hunters and hikers who are afraid. One man who spent years growing marijuana illegally in California’s forests said, “Now, it’s getting more dangerous. Especially because you begin to see what’s happening.”
He’s a grower from Mexico who says an increase in violence drove him out of the business.
“They are killing and robbing people,” he said.
So what’s going on inside those illegal operations?
Ron Brooks, who leads a federally-funded drug task force in Northern California, says there is a connection between the illegal growing on public lands and drug gangs based in Mexico.
“It is not just the grows, there’s got to be a network. That means facilitation of stash houses, of communications, people that rent the cell phones, people that drive the trucks, people that sell this marijuana at the wholesale and retail level. People that get the money bulk transferred back to Mexico, which is where the command and control is for many of these organizations. You’re talking about a very big organization,” Brooks said.
One man talked exclusively with the Center For Investigative Reporting and KQED. He was arrested, is now cooperating with law enforcement, and told us how the grow sites work. He is a man they call the “lunchero,” or a lunchman.
“It’s my responsibility to buy fertilizer, buy food and go to the people in the mountains,” he said. “I’ve known other people who have had one lunchero for eight or 10 pot grows, but I’ve known other people who have 25 or 30 pot grows.”
He works as a kind of foreman who manages the sites and frequently they run several sites as the same time. He says he works for a boss who provides the money to fund the grow operations. Those bosses run their businesses like independent franchises, but they aren’t big enough to distribute the drugs all by themselves. So they rely on the cartels. The cartels distribute California marijuana and other drugs all over the United States.
“All of the Mexican cartels have people here: La Familia, cartels from Juarez, the Zetas. They all have people in the United States,” he said. “The cartels know what to do with the drugs. They carry it to another state or city and distribute it. That’s what they do.”
Authorities say they can’t directly tie the cartels to marijuana production here, but former DEA Special Agent Bill Ruzzamenti, from HIDTA Central Valley, says the connections seem obvious.
“The fact that California is now producing as much or more marijuana than Mexico should tell everybody all they need to know. Seven million plants, that’s what we got last year in California. Those things just don’t happen by happenstance. Foreign nationals in Yosemite National Park growing marijuana doesn’t happen by happenstance,” Ruzzamente said.
The former marijuana grower worries about what could happen to California, too.
“Sometimes people talk and say it’s going to end up like Mexico. And this scares people. It scares me, that it will be like Mexico,” he said.
While California is still nowhere near as violent as Mexico, evidence continues to mount showing just how big the pot crop has become in the state. The “Full Court Press” raids on public lands are expected to continue into next week.