Police: California San Joaquin valley becoming 'doper's paradise'

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 27, 2012 

The Valley's fertile farmland has become a doper's paradise, top law enforcement officials said Wednesday in announcing yet another big marijuana bust connected to Mexican cartels.

An update on Operation Mercury, a six-county crackdown on large-scale, illegal marijuana grows on farmland, came a few hours after Fresno County sheriff's deputies made one of the biggest pot busts in department history.

This one showcased the creep of pot farms from the mountains to the Valley floor. The 140-acre farm is on the south side of Jensen Avenue near Sunnyside Avenue. Across Jensen are rows of newer homes inside Fresno city limits. Just west is the Simonian Farms store.

Deputies, with help from federal agents, hauled out thousands of marijuana plants, many of them 10 feet tall.

About 50 acres were devoted to growing marijuana, but the plants were mostly hidden among rows of peppers, tomatoes, bitter melons and corn. U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner said the legal crops had been left to die -- a telltale sign that the farm wasn't what it might seem.

Fifty people were detained, but it was too early in the investigation to determine how many would be arrested, Sheriff Margaret Mims said. Deputies confiscated several weapons and dozens of pounds of high-grade marijuana that was ready to be sold.

Mims and Wagner, the Valley's top federal law enforcement official, both visited the pot bust. Then they joined federal officials and sheriffs from Kern County to Merced County at a downtown Fresno news conference to say Operation Mercury has been a success.

Since March, the operation has plucked more than 400,000 marijuana plants, primarily on farmland. More than 175 people have been arrested and more than 100 firearms have been confiscated.

Mims said high-grade marijuana used to be grown on public land in the mountains. Intense law enforcement efforts have pushed these growers to the Valley.

That's why the six counties turned to federal authorities for help. "This operation should send a clear message that marijuana cultivation and distribution remains illegal under federal law," said Anthony D. Williams, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Most of the illegal grows uncovered by Operation Mercury are connected to Mexican cartels, Wagner said. The pot is then sold across the country for top dollar, he said.

For example, a pound of high-grade marijuana that is grown here is sold for $2,500 locally but commands a price of more than $4,000 on the East Coast, law enforcement officials said.

The officials at Wednesday's news conference blamed the spread of illegal grows on California's Proposition 215, approved by voters in 1996. The state law allows people with a doctor's letter to grow marijuana; federal officials have said they won't investigate grows of fewer than 100 plants.

Mexican cartels are taking advantage of the law by setting up shop in the Valley, authorities said. The high-priced crop has led to killings, robberies and home-invasion attacks.

"These are not medical marijuana gardens to help sick people," Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said. "These are illegal marijuana grows that are there to make money."

Pazin warned that if law enforcement doesn't make a stand now, the Valley won't be called "America's bread basket." Instead, it will be known as a haven "for a bunch of dopers coming from Mexico," he said.

Fresno County has its fair share of illegal grows. More than 110 large-scale operations were discovered in Fresno County last year, Wagner said. Madera County identified about 60, and Kings County had 16.

Many of the illegal grows have armed men guarding the crops. Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood reported booby traps. At one illegal grow, trip wires would trigger shotguns, he said.

"This is not about medicine," Youngblood said. "This is about money."

Wagner said the 6-month-old operation already has resulted in three federal convictions. He promised more are on the way.

In the latest bust, Mims said deputies began investigating the 140-acre farm three weeks ago after neighbors reported smelling marijuana and seeing men walking around with guns.

The farm also has a car battery rigged up to a motion detector, which set off a loud beep when a laser line was crossed going to a section of the illegal grow. There also were two signs. One said: "Is there life after death? Trespass here and find out." The other said: "No trespassing! Violators will be shot -- survivors will be shot again."

Lucy Gurrola, 47, who has lived in the area with her family for five years, said she was happy to see sheriff's deputies uprooting the marijuana plants.

Gurrola said she thought something was fishy when she saw workers, including elderly people, at the farm at all hours.

Initially, she thought the pungent odor was from animals urinating, she said. But a friend who visited her Tuesday evening told her that he smelled marijuana.

"Thank God it's gone," she said.

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