Courts & Crime

In California, fear of Mexican cartels in state's pot industry

SACRAMENTO — Amid dense scrub oak and manzanita high above the Coloma Valley in El Dorado County, the marijuana growers were stocked to subsist in the steep, unforgiving terrain.

They had seedlings, fertilizer and drip irrigation for thousands of high-grade plants. They had solar power, cookware and months of food. And they had a tiny, protective figurine: Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of Mexican drug traffickers.

With a month to go in the growing season, California is shattering records for pot seizures stemming from raids on illicit marijuana gardens. And authorities blame intricate Mexican drug networks that seek remote growing sites, supply and arm workers, and harvest and traffic the product.

They are tilling vast gardens in forests, on public lands and even close to tony suburban homes near Sacramento.

Authorities say the large gardens – law enforcement officials call them "grows" – supply high-potency pot that is trafficked across the country.

Authorities have found no direct link to the ruthless Mexican cartels blamed for 11,000 killings and a virtual civil war south of the border. But they are encountering heavily armed people willing to shoot it out to defend their cash crop.

"They used to just dump everything and run," said Lassen County Sheriff Steve Warren, who had two officers shot in June when workers at a pot garden opened fire as they approached.

"The change we're seeing now is they're holding their ground. We don't know if it's a cartel thing and people in another part of the world are saying you have to stand and fight. But they're doing it."

Plant seizures from outdoor marijuana grows, found in 40 of 58 California counties last year, exceeded the next closest state – Washington – by eight times.

So far this year, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting – a California task force of nine state and federal agencies – has seized about 4 million plants, a 1.1 million increase over last year's record haul.

"I think they're growing more and we're finding more," said Michelle Gregory, special agent for the state attorney general's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. "We would like to say that we find 50 percent of the grows, but honestly we don't know how much we miss."

Authorities this year recovered 76 weapons and arrested 64 suspects, almost all of them Mexican citizens. Gregory said those detained included people who were smuggled across the border, laborers who were kidnapped to work the grows and others recruited and hired locally.

Authorities also have raided extensive indoor gardens run by Asian gangs and routinely encounter home-grown pot farmers. Yet they say Mexican networks by far dominate the outdoor grows, of which 70 percent are on public lands.

Authorities have no evidence of Mexican-grown pot ending up in California's medical marijuana dispensaries.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Gordon Taylor said authorities "have not seen any direct link" to notorious cartels in Mexico, including the Sinaloa, Tijuana, Juárez and Gulf cartels, and other violent networks known as La Familia and Los Zetas.

"That doesn't mean the link isn't there. We just haven't seen it to date," said Taylor, who investigates marijuana grows in rugged terrain from the lower Central Valley to Oregon. "But there is no question that drug-trafficking organizations from Mexico, not necessarily tied to a cartel, are bringing up people, crossing into the United States illegally, and using them to grow marijuana in California."

Though authorities this year have eradicated marijuana crops worth up to $16 billion, most raids lead authorities to low-level laborers or supply-dropping "lunchmen" who seem to have little idea who the bosses are.

By the time an El Dorado County narcotics SWAT team, reached the freshly watered mountain pot garden above Coloma, the workers had fled, leaving only the figurine of Malverde and a mystery of whom they worked for.

The mustaschioed folklore character, a purported early 1900s bandit, was once seen as a mascot for the Sinaloa cartel. His image has been adopted by other traffickers and is revered at a shrine in the Pacific Coast city of Culiacán.