By Alicia A. Caldwell and Manuel Valdes
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 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 past several years.
Local, state and federal agents found about a million more pot plants each year between 2004 and 2008, and authorities said 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.
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.
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.”