Mexican Drug Cartels May Use Legal Marijuana To Take Over Northern California

Photo Credit: Morgan Heim

The four men bolted through the forest, exhausted and bleeding from multiple cuts. When they emerged from the trees on that dry summer night in 2016, they spotted a house in the distance. They ran up to it and knocked on the stranger’s door, then frantically asked for help in broken English. The stranger called the police. When the cops arrived, the men told a harrowing story of being beaten by armed guards at an illegal pot farm and fleeing for their lives.

The men, who were all Latino, described to the police where the farm was located, just outside a heavily forested area in California’s Calaveras County. Soon, the authorities sent up a team to raid the farm. What they discovered: more than 23,000 marijuana plants producing upwards of $60 million worth of weed. They also found two women they believe were selling marijuana for the Mexican drug cartels.

For months in Calaveras County, a rural, conservative enclave about 125 miles east of San Francisco, this drug bust generated local headlines. But federal authorities say Mexican drug cartels are propping up black-market marijuana farms like this all across Northern California. More than 160 years ago, immigrants, business tycoons and speculators poured into these foothills along the Sierra Nevada to mine the ridges and pan the streams for gold. Now weed is sparking the next gold rush, and law enforcement is struggling to keep cartels out of the game, even though recreational marijuana became legal in California on January 1 and medical marijuana has been permitted since 1996.

For more than a decade, the Mexican drug cartels have been illegally growing weed in the forests of the United States, and federal agencies have had mixed success destroying these illicit crops. Today, California is the epicenter of black-market marijuana in the U.S., with over 90 percent of the country’s illegal marijuana farms. The authorities say they’re finding cartel-affiliated weed on government-owned lands in states including Oregon, Utah, Washington, Nevada and Arizona, all of which permit some form of medical marijuana. The problem has gotten so bad that in 2016, Colorado began partnering with the Mexican Consulate to bust the narcos.

Today, activists in California counties such as Calaveras are pushing back, trying to ban cannabis farms to cut off the cartels. They say drug traffickers are importing automatic weapons and using illegal, highly toxic pesticides that are eviscerating forest animals and poisoning freshwater sources. “We’re going down the toilet bowl,” says Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio, “and it’s not going to get any better.”

But some legal weed farmers in the area say the authorities and their allies are exaggerating the problem, playing on stereotypes about race and crime to instill fear in locals. As Jack Norton, a Calaveras County marijuana grower, puts it, “Just because a guy and his cousin want to grow weed in the woods doesn’t mean they’re affiliated with ‘El Chapo.’”

In early January, the Trump administration gave federal prosecutors more power to go after state marijuana industries, which are still illegal at the federal level. It’s still unclear how that move will affect California.

But in Calaveras, legal weed farmers fear a blanket ban would crush the local economy and cut off millions of dollars in taxes from going to local law enforcement. Last year, the cops in Calaveras started using that money to purchase ballistic helmets, ballistic shields and tactical gun sights—in part to confront a black-market takeover by the drug cartels.

‘It’s Not Cheech and Chong’

On a recent Sunday afternoon, snow dusted the trees of Mountain Ranch, a bucolic stretch of hills and valleys in the center of Calaveras County. Two and a half years ago, the area was almost entirely covered with lush forest, but in September 2015, two days before California created a state licensing system for medical marijuana, a tree fell onto a power line near the town of Jackson, sparking a forest fire that torched nearly 71,000 acres. The blaze fanned out south, incinerating large pockets of Calaveras.

Some of those hills and valleys remain charred, and the clearings reveal what had long been hidden: black plastic tubs filled with marijuana seedlings. These are used by sophisticated, industrial marijuana farms, and many of them are within a 20-minute drive from the Mountain Ranch town center. “It’s not Cheech and Chong,” says Karen Harper, a member of the pro-legalization Calaveras Cannabis Alliance, referring to the people who harvest this crop. “They’re not lazy-ass hippies. They work hard.”

Months after the fire, Calaveras announced a temporary ordinance to regulate commercial marijuana farms. That led to a flood of cannabis investors pouring in from across the country. The damage from the fire had decimated property values in Mountain Ranch, and investors showed up in droves to purchase land from families whose homes were destroyed. “We call it the green rush,” says Bill Schmiett, a local real estate agent.

Now marijuana drives the economy here. A study by the University of Pacific in nearby Stockton found that more than 740 commercial growers in the area generated nearly $400 million in sales and labor income in 2016.

But that study may underestimate the crop’s total impact. The county planning department estimates there are anywhere from 700 to 1,500 illegal marijuana farms sprawled across private property or government-owned lands in Calaveras.

Illegal pot farms aren’t new to California. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, which led to tighter control along the U.S.-Mexico border, marijuana plantations have been on the rise in forests across the northern part of the state. That surge has increased over the past three years—and investigators have been finding more and more illegal pot farms in California forests. In 2014, Stephen Frick, a special agent for the U.S. Forest Service, and his colleagues culled 671,000 plants from national forests in California. In 2016, that figure doubled. Now that the state has legalized recreational marijuana, growers are rushing into rural areas in Northern California to set up illegal farms, with one county even declaring a “state of emergency” last September over the rise of black-market growers. Frick doesn’t think that will slow down. “All the indications so far this year are that [seizures of illegal pot] are going to continue to increase.”

Just east of Mountain Ranch is the Stanislaus National Forest, another prime location for illegal weed farms. Investigators—from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office—have found hundreds of thousands of plants tended by undocumented workers on that government-owned land. “Over 80 percent of the people we arrest in these grows,” says Frick, “are here illegally from Mexico.”

Many, he says, are from Michoacán, a drug-war-ravaged state in the western part of the country. Frick and other authorities believe the narcos lure workers across the border, promising well-paying jobs patrolling the fields and producing weed on an industrial scale. Others, they say, are brutally forced into it. Cartel players either threaten workers at gunpoint to keep them tending the crops or threaten to kill their family members back in Mexico if they don’t finish the harvest. Because the workers aren’t U.S. citizens, the cartels know they’re unlikely to ask the police for help. Most are afraid to tell investigators who they’re working for, or to testify as witnesses. “If I tell you, they’ll kill me,” one grower told a retired Calaveras law enforcement officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he thinks cartel members are stalking him and his wife.

In Calaveras, Sheriff DiBasilio says it’s very hard to arrest people growing illegally. “We’ve done hundreds of flyovers” of pot farms with helicopters, he says. “But as soon as they hear you coming, they’re gone.” Of the growers they have caught, DiBasilio says, the vast majority are undocumented.

Calaveras authorities have never received a confession from arrested farmers that links them to Mexican drug cartels. Yet Frick and the California attorney general’s office believe the illegal weed goes into the nationwide pipeline coordinated by organizations such as the Sinaloa cartel and La Familia Michoacana. One piece of evidence? Phone calls and wire transfers of money that travel south, to the border.

Frick and other authorities also point to the cult idols they so often find on the pot farms. The retired Calaveras law enforcement officer says he and his colleagues used to find statues of Jesús Malverde, a so-called narco saint from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, at illegal farms in Calaveras County after raids. The legend of Malverde is that he was a Robin Hood–like figure during the 19th century. Cartels first used his image in the 1980s as part of a slick PR campaign to suggest that their criminal empire was built to provide economic opportunity for the country’s poor. Not all of Malverde’s followers are criminals, but in the United States authorities see him as an emblem of the Mexican drug trade. When Chicago cops pulled over a car carrying $19 million of cocaine in 2010, they said it was the Malverde statue on the dashboard that tipped them off.

When law enforcement started investigating the four battered men who escaped from that Calaveras black-market pot farm, they visited the home addresses affiliated with the two women suspected of running the operation. At one of the homes, they found a shrine to another Mexican folklore saint commonly associated with drug traffickers: the Grim Reaper–esque Santa Muerte. (Members of law enforcement have discovered that figure when busting migrant smugglers, MS-13 gang operations and cartel rings along the U.S.-Mexico border.)

More alarming than these folklore figurines, however, was what they found back at the farm: heaps of trash, dirty black tarps and a makeshift log cabin where the four men lived in putrid conditions. These growers were polluting the forest while reaping an enormous profit—a trade-off that’s happening in illegal farms across Northern California.

14,000 Pounds of Rodenticide

Hours north of Calaveras, deep in public forests along the California-Oregon border, 12 tons of plastic trash, thousands of pounds of fertilizers and more than 80 pounds of toxic rodenticides and pesticides lay strewn among towering pines and oaks—turning this Eden into a landfill.

Mourad Gabriel, a wildlife pathologist who runs the Integral Ecology Research Center, first encountered this black-market marijuana farm in 2015. He described its festering conditions in an unpublished cache of research he allowed me to preview. Gabriel estimates that criminal organizations are pouring 14,000 pounds of rodenticide and 750,000 pounds of water-soluble chemical fertilizers into the soil on government-protected land every year. Those estimates are based on his fieldwork on more than 120 illegal marijuana farms in public forests across seven counties in Northern California.

At these sites, Gabriel has also found the crumpled, poisoned bodies of bears, deer, foxes, rodents and at-risk species like mountain lions. One of the chemicals killing these animals: carbofuran, a pesticide that’s illegal to use on crops in the United States, though still available for purchase online. “Growers often store the concentrate—bubble-gum pink in color—in soda and Gatorade bottles,” Gabriel and his colleagues wrote in a recent op-ed for The Wildlife Professional magazine. “Just a drop is sufficient to kill an adult human.”

He has talked with men caught tending illegal marijuana farms to learn why they deployed such powerful chemicals to protect their crops. “I would ask, ‘Where did you learn these mechanisms for poisoning wildlife?’ And they’d say, ‘That’s what we did back home’”—in Mexico.

Part of the legalization argument is that regulating and taxing marijuana could give California enforcement agencies the funds they need to eradicate illegal farms. But Gabriel thinks it will take years before enforcement can put a dent in the illegal grows that he estimates pop up by the hundreds every year. He points to Humboldt County, about five hours northwest of Calaveras, where authorities are combing through 2,300 applications for growers who want to start selling in California’s recreational market. But there are also an estimated 12,700 illegal farms in the county.

Not all of those farmers are claiming allegiance to narco-trafficking clans back in Mexico. But what alarms Gabriel most, aside from the environmental damage, is the growing number of firearms. In 2012, he says, he encountered guns at two of the 20 illegal marijuana farms he investigated. Now, he’s finding them at nearly every site he comes across. “This is not Ma and Pa growing out in the hills,” says Gabriel. “These are literally drug trafficking organizations that are there to protect their investment.”

Silent, Sober Majority?

Anti-pot activists in Calaveras say the influx of firearms and toxic pollution is enough reason to bar the industry as a whole, and most of the county’s conservative-held government backs their cause. On a Wednesday in November, more than 40 residents packed into a small Calaveras County government meeting as the county planning board worked on a proposal to limit commercial marijuana farms to just 50. If turned into law, that would kick out nearly 150 farmers who have already started legal marijuana operations—but leave Calaveras’s 700 to 1,500 black-market growers untouched.

The meeting quickly grew divisive. As weed farmers and anti-pot activists stood up and shared their opinions on the ordinance, people jeered and hissed across the aisle, yelling at speakers to sit down and booing officials as they commented in favor or against the proposal. “Protect us!” shouted a weed farmer at one point during the eight-hour session. “Protect us!” shouted anti-pot activists in response.

In the far corner, among the anti-pot activists, sat Bill McManus, a potbellied man with a slight drawl whose white moustache is stained yellow-brown by tobacco smoke. He and his colleague David Tunno are the de facto leaders of the anti-pot movement up here. They call themselves mouthpieces for the “silent majority” that wants weed out. Last year, they collected more than 5,000 petition signatures for a ban proposition, which was enough to float it in front of the county supervisors. And Tunno says that number could have been much higher. “A lot of these people are so damn scared they won’t even help us. They don’t want their name attached to our cause.”

Tunno and McManus drum up support with what they call local “war stories”—tales of Calaveras residents accidentally driving into a backwoods illegal farm, where armed men descend upon their car and threaten to find out where they live if they don’t turn back. Or the local ranchers who patrol their plots of land with Kevlar vests strapped across their chests, afraid they’ll stumble upon an armed crew. “You don’t enjoy your property. You don’t go out for walks. You don’t have your grandkids up riding the pony, or bicycles or ATV,” says McManus. “You can’t do that anymore because it’s too dangerous.”

And it’s not just the anti-pot camp that wants the black market shut down. Burch Shufeldt, a registered marijuana grower, claims he’s had run-ins with cartel growers near his properties. He showed me the remnants of what he claims was a cartel grow in the Stanislaus forest—a space littered with pots and pans, chemical fertilizers, felled trees and black hoses—and brought me to a grassy mountaintop above his isolated cabin where cellphone service barely trickles in. “You’d come screaming up the hill on a quad,” he says, “and there’d be this huge Escalade sitting right here.”

The six registered pot farmers I interviewed for this story said they believe Mexican cartels or their affiliates are active in Calaveras. But they want to keep weed legal, not only because it’s their livelihood but because their tax dollars help combat the illegal farms. “There’s the hard-core black market with organized criminals,” says Cas Tomaszewski, former director of the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance. “And then there are growers with kids who’ve been doing this here for years.”

A total and complete ban on growing pot would hobble the local economy, he says, and could lead to even more drug-related violence. No commercial cannabis means no multimillion-dollar tax boon for the county and its law enforcement officers, who used marijuana tax funds to raid about 40 illegal farms and seize nearly 30,000 pot plants in 2017. “We’re lucky anybody wants to live in this county,” says Harper, of the pro-legalization Calaveras Cannabis Alliance. “And they want to stop something that provides millions of dollars.”

Regardless of what becomes of the Trump administration’s push to enforce federal marijuana laws, the county has until February 2018, when its current weed farm ordinance expires, to make up its mind. Outside the county planning meeting, McManus and a small group of anti-pot activists talked about the next step in their years long campaign. They’d saturated county roads with anti-pot banners, attended hundreds of county supervisor meetings and visited stores that serve the marijuana industry to lambaste business owners. Now their plan is to sit back and watch. Like Colorado, argues McManus, California will see that legalization and more taxes aren’t enough to kick out the black market. “I think it needs to hurt a little bit,” he says, “before it gets better.”

One of the anti-pot activists next to him unzips a compartment in her purse to show me her first-ever pistol holster. No matter what the county decides, this group tells me, their only option is to protect themselves from the armed pot farmers who are now their next-door neighbors. “We’re militarizing,” says a local cattle rancher, who asked for anonymity out of fear of being confronted by criminal growers. “We’re all getting bigger guns, we’re all getting bigger dogs, [and] we’re all getting bigger electric gates.”