Pubdate: Mon, 26 Oct 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Contact:  2009 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Popular)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)


Californian, Mexican Search and Destroy

ORLEANS, CALIF. -- What does a tough Mexican army major barking 
orders in the outlaw hills of the Sierra Madre have in common with 
the laconic sheriff detective from the north woods of California who 
puts a marijuana sticker on his truck as a joke?

They are both professional weed-whackers committed to the cause -- 
the hard, dirty, difficult destruction of marijuana out in the 
fields, plant by plant. Mexico has the largest marijuana eradication 
operation in the world, followed by the United States. It is a 
downright Sisyphean task.

October is harvest time. Marijuana bushes as burly as Christmas trees 
are hidden between the corn stalks above the beaches of Acapulco, and 
the buds are swelling on the steep hills of California's Six Rivers 
National Forest. There is also a thriving indoor business, almost 
impossible to find. The United Nations says 145 million pounds of 
marijuana was grown last year, with Morocco, Paraguay, Mexico and the 
United States the top-producing countries.

Here are two men trying to whittle that number down.

Maj. Hugo de la Rosa is a commander in Military Zone 35, a wild 
mountainous region where they once produced the legendary strain 
known as Acapulco Gold, back when Pink Floyd ruled arena rock.

There are five full army battalions stationed here, and though troops 
render assistance during natural disasters, what they do most is 
search for opium poppies and marijuana bushes. It is an army whose 
enemy is a plant -- grown by ghosts. The farmers are almost never 
caught, and rarely arrested.

De la Rosa and his troops leave their fortified base in a convoy of 
five trucks -- like an occupying army moving through hostile 
territory. Earlier this month, a dozen mutilated bodies were dumped 
here, the killers leaving taunting notes warning soldiers to back 
off. The commander snaps at his turret gunner to look sharp.

Ten minutes outside of town, a man on a horse waves soldiers over and 
points to a new Volkswagen abandoned in the trees, always a bad sign.

"There's somebody inside," the cowboy says.

The soldiers pop the trunk, and discover a man, blindfolded, his 
hands and feet bound. Not moving. The soldiers jump when he begins to moan.

De la Rosa betrays little sympathy. He says the guy is likely a 
trafficker who crossed a rival. That's how he ended up in a trunk. 
"This is a dangerous place," the major says.

Four hours later, driving 5 mph on jarring, rutted roads, the convoy 
arrives at a gorge above a roaring stream. It begins to rain as 
soldiers slide through the brush and come upon an acre of marijuana 
planted among rows of corn, a common strategy to conceal the illicit 
crops from army helicopters and Mexican navy satellites overhead.

Drenched, the soldiers rip plants out of the ground by hand and stoke 
a huge bonfire. They are careful not to destroy the corn. That's the 
unknown farmer's only income now. De la Rosa guesses the field would 
have produced 600 pounds of marijuana, worth about $15,000 for the 
farmer. That is a rich man in rural Mexico. The same field of corn 
would barely keep him alive.

Who is growing the marijuana? "The people in the village, the guy on 
the donkey," the major said. "The mother? She is on the radio and 
warns them when we come. The sons work the field. The daughter cooks 
their lunch. The uncle organizes the harvest. The father takes the 
money. It is a family business."

Sgt. Wayne Hanson is head of the marijuana unit for the Humboldt 
County Sheriff's Office. It is not the kind of job you take to win a 
popularity contest here.

As dawn lifts in northern California, Hanson is one of 16 agents from 
four state agencies rumbling through the Six Rivers National Forest 
in 14 vehicles. Hanson brings a bemused irony to his task. He drives 
a gray Expedition with a Humboldt County sticker on the rear window, 
a marijuana leaf superimposed over the name of the nation's 
unofficial capital of weed.

Hanson said he favors legalizing pot, for no other reason than he 
thinks it would put the traffickers who are ruining the forests out 
of business and force all the people growing it "to go out and get a job."

Hanson was mowing his lawn recently when he smelled marijuana. He 
peeked over the neighbor's fence.

"If a guy's growing dope and he knows I'm the detective sergeant 
running the marijuana program, it's pretty cotton-pickin' rampant, I 
think," he deadpans.

The air begins to thump, and a Hughes 500 helicopter lands on the 
road. The helicopter uses a rope to airlift agents, two by two, into 
a nearby marijuana grove on a steep hillside. Some agents yell 
wooo-hooo as they swing above the trees.

Hanson stays behind. The helicopter reappears, this time carrying 
400-pound bales of marijuana. The smell is overpowering as the 
marijuana descends toward a long trailer attached to a pickup. Loose 
marijuana is falling to the earth. The helicopter returns with 
another load. Then another. "Uh, I think we may be exceeding the 
capacity of this trailer," the National Guardsman says.

"We'll just tie that puppy down," says Hanson.

The guardsman jumps on the marijuana, packing it down. Hanson 
produces straps, but huge buds are already scattering on the ground, 
each one worth hundreds of dollars.

There's so much pot that it's impossible to burn it all, so the 
sheriff buries it at an undisclosed location.

This job takes four hours and 30 trips for the helicopter. They add 
up the haul: 2,279 plants destroyed. The sweaty agents are sticky 
with pot resin that won't scrub off in the shower.

"Sometimes pieces fall off the truck, and people run out into the 
traffic to pick it up," says the guardsman, a veteran who fought in 
Iraq speaking on the condition that he not be identified. "Yeah," 
says Hanson. "It's like a Brink's truck with dollar bills falling off of it."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake