Pubdate: Fri, 07 Sep 2007
Source: Union Democrat, The (Sonora, CA)
Copyright: 2007 Western Communications, Inc
Author: Alisha Wyman, The Union Democrat
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)


A helicopter squatted in a wide spot on a dirt road on a recent
morning, at the center of a halo of manzanita and oak trees.

An American flag fluttered from a truck nearby, serving as both a
windsock and a statement.

Between them, special agent Ryan Pontecorvo stood in green, packets of
supplies hanging off the black straps that course around his limbs,
briefing a group of agents on safety procedures. He and his colleagues
- -- a mix of state agents and Tuolumne County Narcotics Team (TNT)
members -- were about to clip onto a plasma cable connected to the
helicopter, then allow the bird to hopscotch them into one of the
three marijuana gardens they intended to destroy on this morning last

With a dozen or more such busts a year on the Stanislaus National
Forest and surrounding lands, the local war on drugs is an involved
and increasingly technical battle.

It faces a more and more complex foe -- shadowy foreign crime groups
using a diffused workforce to grow increasingly potent dope. All this,
officials say, to generate even more-dangerous and addictive drugs.

"It's an epidemic for all the public lands," said Holly Swartz, a
special agent with the Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotic
Enforcement's CAMP program.

A growing problem

The modern marijuana trade defies a traditional narrative of drug
trafficking along the U.S.'s southern border.

Rather than pot grown abroad being smuggled here, much of it is being
grown in our own backyard by foreign nationals who, in turn, sell it
in the United States.

Officials suspect that organized trafficking groups based in Mexico
are behind the vast majority of gardens they find. Their suspicions
are based on the growing methods, the products used and the people
recruited to work the grows -- typically immigrant laborers from Mexico.

The Sierra Nevada foothills make ideal growing grounds -- with remote
areas tucked in public lands awash with accessible water sources.

So far this year, Tuolumne County has destroyed 81,485 plants, fast
approaching last year's raids when they found 83,600 total. In
Calaveras County, law enforcement has pulled 30,852 so far this year,
compared to about 20,000 last year.

CAMP Special Agent Supervisor Bob McLaughlin attributes the record
years both to the growers becoming more prolific and agents getting
better at catching them.

Late summer and early fall mark the height of the marijuana-growing
season -- with plants maturing and growers harvesting.

The gardens, or "grows," start in April or May, when seeds or
seedlings brought in paper cups from clandestine nurseries in the
Central Valley are planted.

They aren't like the pot plants of yesteryear. Growers increasingly
are turning to higher-potency, cloned plants -- offering growers
greater control over both the type of product and the plant's sex. The
valuable parts of the plant are its unfertilized flower buds -- meaning
male plants are useless.

Modern plants are bred to increase the levels of THC, the chemical in
marijuana that provides a high. It's about four to five times more
potent than plants grown 30 years ago, said Sgt. Scott Johnson, TNT
unit commander.

The gardens themselves also have become more technical.

The workers -- drawn, sometimes unwittingly, from farm labor pools --
are assigned specific tasks and given no insight into other aspects of
the operation.

One crew may set up irrigation systems, which can include pumps,
drip-irrigation type systems and fertilizers. Others manage the
planting, and a few stay to guard the grow. Others are later brought
in to help harvest.

"They know the one person who took them in there, and they know their
job," Johnson said. "That's what makes a lot of those investigations

Once harvested, authorities said, the crops are taken to hubs in the
Central Valley and elsewhere in the state, where it trickles down
through a hierarchy of drug dealers until it reaches the streets and

But the transaction doesn't stop there.

Most of the profits are then taken back to Mexico, Johnson said, where
they are used to fund other drug ventures, including methamphetamine
labs south of the border.

About 65 percent of meth used in the United States can be traced back
to Mexican drug cartels, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration. Of that, 53 percent is from superlabs in Mexico
itself, and 12 percent from Mexican-run superlabs within the United

"They're like any business,"Johnson said. "They're going to

Stopping the growth

Tuolumne and Calaveras county law enforcement officials enlist
helicopters for most of their searches, although sometimes grows are
discovered by forest rangers or hunters.

Once officials pinpoint a garden, they schedule a day for the bust and
recruit CAMP's aid.

CAMP, which stands for the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting,
assists counties in eradicating marijuana gardens. The organization is
broken into five regions, with teams that consist of agents from the
state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, the National Guard, contracted
helicopter pilots, military reservists and retired law enforcement

The helicopter pilots first scout out the gardens the day of the raid.
Then, they shuttle agents to the gardens on a cable -- a technique
called short hauling.

Those minutes-long leaps into the gardens save hours of scrambling
through manzanita and poison oak, and save potential injuries from
stumbles, heat exhaustion and rattlesnakes.

Plus, it's fun, the agents admit.

"You'd wait in line at Disneyland for two and a half hours for a ride
like this," Johnson said.

"And we get paid to do it," Swartz said.

The helicopter is also what lifts nets of marijuana plants out of the
garden and back to the base, where they are shredded.

Justin Jones, a pilot for PJ Helicopters, was contracted to help with
a recent raid.

 From his seat, he peered out of open doors down among the brush,
searching for the signature sawtooth leaves.

"You get to know what to look for on the sides of the hillside," he

The weight of responsibility increases when the agents clip onto the
cable for short-hauling.

"When there's people on the line, you definitely pay more attention to
what's around you, or how high you are, your speed," Jones said.

Tuolumne County heists average about 3,000 plants per grow, said TNT
Detective Jarrod Pippin. They haven't found any gardens with fewer
than 1,000 this year.

The vast size of the gardens found is a deviation from the past, said
Calaveras County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Dave Seawell, who has
worked in the narcotic division for a total of five and a half years
since the late 1980s.

Then, the numbers of plants they uncovered were much smaller, and they
weren't associated with Mexican cartels, he said.

"To get a 500-plant grow was a big deal," Seawell said.

Now, they are rippling across lands devoted to public use --
monopolizing it for illegal purposes.

"If we didn't do this our public lands would be overrun," said Lt. Dan
Bressler, spokesman for the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office, who
served on TNT two seasons ago.

Chasing the rabbit

As state and local governments have cracked down on the gardens,
growers have upped their efforts to preserve their claims.

Weapons and booby-traps are increasingly common at grows, Johnson

"Anytime you start hitting someone for $5 million, $6 million in
profit at a time, they're going to want to protect it," he said.

Most of the time, however, the growers flee. Like some of the animals
they poach, growers only strike when cornered.

"They're not your street thug who wants to fight it out with the
cops," Johnson said.

They have learned to tell the sounds of a threat from those of nature.
They hear the law enforcement helicopters and duck into planned hiding

After living in the woods for months, the guards are keenly aware of
the getaway routes available to them, while the agents are unfamiliar
with the areas.

"They're jackrabbits," CAMP's Pontecorvo said, adding that in the
first week this year he chased eight suspects without catching one.

Occasionally, the agents are able to capture a grower. Suspects are
charged with cultivation of marijuana, a felony, and sometimes
possession of a firearm.

Often those caught are illegal aliens. If sentenced, they serve their
time and then are deported.

It's not long, however, before they make their way back up to the
grows to start the process over, Seawell said.

Growers frequently replant in the same location as an eradicated
garden, using it as a diversion for the cops, then establish new
gardens in another location. Some gardens survive for years without

There are a few growers, Pippin believes, who are lured into the trade
on the promise that they will be cultivating grapes or other produce
in the foothills.

Once they are brought into the remote areas, it's hard to escape. The
fear for their lives or family and the harrowing trips back to
civilization deter them from running away, Pippin said.

"Basically their only way of survival would be to stay there and wait
it out," he said.

Seawell disagreed, saying the workers generally know what they're
doing. But they may not have much connection with the higher-ups in
the drug cartel, he said.

As time goes on and agents interview those who are caught, law
enforcement is learning more about the trade, from its root to the

It's a game that will probably never have a winner.

"The bad guys adapt to how we work and it kind of goes back and
forth," Seawell said. "Each time we have a case against them, we learn
how they work, so I think it's constantly evolving."
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