Cartels Use Sequoia National Forest to Grow Pot
JACKI LYDEN, host:
A rural, mountainous county in central California that's best known for hiking and fly-fishing is gaining a new reputation as a top marijuana producer. Last year, close to 200,000 marijuana plants worth an estimated $800 million were seized in Tulare County, some of it in remote sections of Sequoia National Park. Authorities believe Mexican drug cartels are behind much of the illegal drug cultivation. Adam Burke has this report.
ADAM BURKE reporting:
The extensive web of gardens in Sequoia National Park was discovered in August 2002. That was when a fly-fisherman stumbled across them after a day of wandering the remote reaches of the Kaweah River. Since then, law enforcement officials within the park have discovered gardens deeper and deeper into the backcountry, all in remote, low-elevation areas.
The Mineral King Road is one such zone. Picturesque, strewn with orange and white windflowers, the road's 690 switchbacks afford breathtaking views of the Kaweah drainage. And it's an ideal artery for marijuana growers who ply their trade on the canyon's steep water-rich slopes.
Unidentified Ranger: The quality of marijuana being produced in this park by the cartel organizations is (Spanish spoken). I mean, it is fine product.
BURKE: This masked ranger wears dark glasses and face paint and he's been ordered by his supervisors not to give his name. With evidence of firearms found in almost every encampment, he says law enforcement agents in the park can't afford to take chances.
Unidentified Ranger: AK-47 assault rifle, multiple long arms, 30-30 rifles, 12-gauge shotguns, semi-automatic handguns, 9mm, .40-caliber, .45. These are powerful calibers that can punch through body armor and can cause people a lot of harm.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
BURKE: We plunge into a hollow next to a rushing brook, an almost indistinguishable trail threading downward between moss-covered oaks and white boulders. A record 50,000 plants were discovered in the park last fall.
Unidentified Ranger: So what percentage of that aren't we finding, because generally drugs--you know, with drugs, it's always the tip of the iceberg that we seem to bump into. So there's probably 100,000 or there could be 100,000 plants lurking in this park.
(Soundbite of shoveling)
BURKE: At the garden complex, trail crews are recontouring the hillsides with hoes where growers cut terraces a few years ago. Park restoration ecologist Athena Demetry says her crews have bagged up literally tons of trash, from sleeping bags and cell phones to car batteries and 50-pound bags of fertilizer.
Ms. ATHENA DEMETRY (Ecologist): In just these five acres of garden area, we documented 2,870 pounds of fertilizer and all of that was carried in on somebody's back.
BURKE: Growers lived on the site all summer long. They established garbage pits, tent sites, cooking areas and the garden plots themselves, diverting streams with miles of black plastic irrigation tubing. The masked park ranger says it's a well-engineered system.
Unidentified Ranger: It's camps of gardens, it's living areas, it's communications, it's guarding, it's cultivating, it's trafficking, it's moving. So a little fishing on the side. They've got it all here. I mean, they've really got it worked out.
BURKE: While this activity has only recently surfaced at Sequoia National Park, law enforcement officials say Mexican drug cartels have been growing marijuana on public lands in California for well over a decade. Some traffic in other drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine, but authorities believe public land pot farming is their bread and butter. And the activity has become widespread. Last year, 560,000 marijuana plants were eradicated from national forest lands in California alone. Experts on drug policy and drug cartels are not surprised.
Mr. PETER H. SMITH (University of California-San Diego): Put yourself in the shoes of a drug trafficker.
BURKE: Peter H. Smith, of the University of California-San Diego, has studied Latin American drug traffickers for close to two decades. He says the US-Mexico border exacts a kind of tariff that these organizations can avoid by producing domestically.
Mr. SMITH: Parks are very remote. They've hard to police. There's a lot of tree cover for various operations. And given the kind of pressures that they might be feeling within Mexico and at the border, it simply makes more sense to come to the United States.
BURKE: There have been a few successful efforts to crack these organizations. Val Jimenez is operations commander of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, a multiagency group that provides enforcement and eradication support throughout the state of California. Jimenez points to painstaking investigations over the last six years that have placed dozens of upper-level traffickers and a handful of leaders behind bars. One group, busted last year, had gardens ranging along 400 miles of the Sierra Nevada.
Mr. VAL JIMENEZ (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting): This organization was growing marijuana from the southern part of the valley, the Central Valley and the mountain area, all the way up to the Oregon border. And so when we took this group down, we made a significant impact on distribution of marijuana here in the state of California.
BURKE: Still, it's not clear that enforcement has affected the availability of marijuana or the overall capacity of production centers dispersed throughout the United States.
Mr. SMITH: Trying to stop supply or trying to stop transit is impossible if you have as much demand as we have.
BURKE: Again, Peter H. Smith.
Mr. SMITH: It's like squeezing a balloon. You know, you squeeze it tight at one side and it simply pops up elsewhere.
BURKE: Rangers at Sequoia National Park have witnessed the same dynamic.
Unidentified Ranger: What we've seen from this park is that they won't leave a garden site until you physically take it. And once you do that, they'll just bop over the river or bop over the stream and go to the next site. You literally have to push them out.
BURKE: But with nearly identical operations surfacing on public lands in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Arkansas, it's clear that international marijuana traffickers have plenty of available garden sites to choose from and the $11 billion consumer market in the US remains an alluring carrot for anyone willing to take the risk.
For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.
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