Pubdate: Wed, 14 Jul 2010
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2010 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Author: Steve Campbell


Cagey Mexican drug cartel farmers appear to be back at work growing
marijuana in thickly forested areas in North Texas, law enforcement
officials say.

It's still early in the growing season, but the Ellis County Sheriff's
Department has already unearthed nearly 30,000 high-grade marijuana
plants on two plots of private property discovered about 40 miles
south of Dallas, Lt. James Saulter said.

Last year, Texas law enforcement officials destroyed a record 62,000
pot plants, with most grown in sophisticated operations in Ellis and
Navarro counties.

No arrests were made in connection with the 2009 pot patches, but
state and local officials said they were believed to be linked to
Mexican drug cartels that are increasingly moving marijuana operations
to the United States in response to a crackdown on border smuggling.

Texas investigators also theorized that the close proximity of Ellis
and Navarro counties to Dallas and Fort Worth gave the cartels ready
access to large urban markets and interstate transportation corridors.

Like last year, the marijuana fields found this season featured
elaborate irrigation systems and hand-manicured plants tended by
workers who camped on-site.

A 2,400-plant "grow" was discovered Monday about five miles south of
Ennis when an elderly landowner searching for his cows came face to
face with a suspicious man who took off into the woods, Saulter said.

Deputies who responded to the man's call were searching the property
when they spotted an irrigation system connected to a stock pond. They
followed the irrigation hoses for about a half mile through a dense
thicket and found two marijuana patches.

"The landowner was shocked by what we found on his property," Saulter
said. "He is not a suspect; he had no idea what was going on. Now he's

In late May, Ellis County deputies and Texas Department of Public
Safety personnel conducting aerial surveillance got a glimpse of
another marijuana operation through the canopy of a thickly wooded
area about four miles from the grow found this week.

When they searched the area on the ground, they found more than 27,000
plants spread across four plots.

"We're pretty sure it was connected to Mexican drug cartels. It was a
very similar operation to the three large ones we found last year,"
Saulter said. "They had water pumps and irrigation systems set up."

The growers seek a delicate balance between the shadows and the sun.
They clear some areas of the ground for planting but try to retain
enough of the forest canopy to screen it from drug interdiction
overflights. When the canopy is too thick, they thin it to allow sun
to reach the plants.

It's a creative business plan, said a DPS investigator who asked not
to be identified for security reasons.

"If it's not your land, you have no risk of having your property
seized. It's pretty clever," he said. "But at the same time, it's a
lot of work. Can you imagine planting 27,000 tomato plants?"

The pot farmers are doing their homework, officials

"They are definitely scouting these places out," Saulter said. "They
are looking for thickly wooded properties with absentee owners. They
then go into the back of the properties away from the access points."

Officials estimated that at maturity the pot plants found this year
had the potential street value of $14,850,000.

In Navarro County, where similar large pot fields were found last
year, the sheriff's department is hunting for new plots and trying to
educate landowners, Chief Deputy Mike Cox said.

"We're aggressively pursuing these people," Cox said. "We're
conducting overflights and telling landowners, especially absentee
ones, that if they see something they need to be cognizant of the fact
that they will come on your land.

"If these cartels are involved, that's something for landowners to be
concerned about. That's some mean people down there, and there's a lot
of money at stake." 
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