Pubdate: Wed, 02 Jan 2013
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2013 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Joe Mozingo, Tribune Newspapers
Page: 10


Few Cartel Ties Found in Forest Operations

WELDON, Calif. - A few minutes after 4 a.m., agents in camouflage
cluster in a dusty field in central California. "Movement needs to be
slow, deliberate and quiet," the team leader whispers. "Lock and load

They check their ammunition and assault rifles, not exactly sure whom
they might meet in the dark: heavily armed Mexican drug traffickers or
just poorly paid fieldworkers camping miserably in the brush.

Twenty minutes later, after a lights-off drive for a mile, the agents
climb out of two pickup trucks and sift into the high desert brush.

The granite faces of the Southern Sierra are washed in the light of a
full moon. Two spotters with nightvision scopes take positions on the
ridge to monitor the marijuana grow, tucked deep in a cleft of the

The rest of the agents hunker down in some sumac waiting for the call
to move in. The action has to be precisely timed with raids in
Bakersfield, where they hope to capture the leaders of the

They have no idea how many people are up here. Thermal imaging
aircraft circling high above was not detecting anyone on the ground.
And trail cameras hadn't captured images of men delivering supplies
for more than a week. Maybe the growers have already harvested and
cleared out.

Word comes on the radio to go into the site.

The agents fan out. A U.S. Forest Service agent unleashes a German
shepherd and follows it up a piney slope. After several minutes, the
dog begins barking furiously.

"We have movement!" shouts the Forest Service officer. "Hands

Such raids have become commonplace in California, part of a costly,
frustrating campaign to eradicate everbigger, more destructive
marijuana farms and dismantle the shadowy groups creating them.

Pot cultivated on public lands surged in the last decade, a side
effect of the medical cannabis boom. In 2001, several hundred thousand
plants were seized in the state. By 2010, authorities pulled up a
record 7.4 million plants, mostly on public land.

Law enforcement long called these grows on public land "cartel grows"
and hoped to work from the busts in the forest up the drug hierarchy,
maybe all the way to the Sinaloa cartel or the Zetas.

But after years of raids and work with informants and wiretaps, agents
realize the operations seemed to be run by independent groups of
Mexican nationals, often using undocumented fieldworkers from their
home regions.

Tommy Lanier, director of the National Marijuana Initiative, part of
the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said there was scant
evidence that the cartels exerted much control over marijuana growing
in the national forests.

"Based on our intelligence, which includes thousands of cellphone
numbers and wiretaps, we haven't been able to connect anyone to a
major cartel," he said.

Lanier said authorities have long mislabeled marijuana grown on public
land as "cartel grows" because Mexican nationals are arrested in the
majority of cases, and the narrative of fighting cartels helps them
secure federal funding.

He doesn't rule out that some of the cash flowing south of the border
makes its way to members of those groups. He just doesn't believe they
are actively directing activities up here.

"We've had undercover agents at the highest level of these groups,
breaking bread and drinking tequila," says Roy Giorgi, commander of
the Mountain and Valley Marijuana Investigation Team, a multiagency
organization. "Even at their most comfortable, the leaders never said,
'Hey, we're working for the Zetas.' "

In Giorgi's jurisdiction, the majority of the people arrested or
investigated are originally from the state of Michoacan, where
marijuana growing and immigration to the U.S. are entrenched.

In their hometowns, growers have to sell their marijuana to cartels
for a fraction of what they could make in California. When they come
north, they see opportunity in the state's vast wilderness. They have
the know-how and perseverance to set up clandestine farms and live for
months at a time in extremely rugged spots. Loncheros - lunchmen -
often make weekly supply runs in the middle of the night, bringing
food, beer and fertilizer.

The workers wear camouflage, often sleep in the brush-covered tents,
cook on propane stoves and supplement their food by poaching deer and
other wildlife.

Giorgi says these organizations can still be wellfinanced, heavily
armed and dangerous.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman realized at a community meeting in
2010 how bad the situation was in the Mendocino National Forest when
five of the eight people who went to the microphone said basically: "I
was out in the national forest ... herding cows or sheep or hiking or
fishing. And someone shot at me. So I'm not going into the national

The following summer, Allman helped lead a task force on a three-week
purge of pot from the area. They pulled out 632,000 plants, 42 miles
of irrigation line and 52 tons of garbage. Agents arrested 132 people
and confiscated 38 guns.

Is the forest safe today? "I'll put it this way," Allman said. "I'd go
camping in the National Forest, but I wouldn't let my sister go."

Would he camp unarmed? "No."

A Mexican-born grower working just outside Mendocino National Forest
said the cartels may not run the grows, but the criminal ties to
Mexico are vastly complex and dangerous. He hears stories of
shakedowns and workers held captive in the forest, with threats to
their families back home.

The grower operates in the quasi-legal medical marijuana world and has
contacts on the public land grows. He asked to remain anonymous
because he feared for his safety. He said he thinks law enforcement
has little grasp of what's going on because no one arrested will put
his family at risk to speak with them, even for a lighter sentence.

Lanier said agents are making progress. This season, they have seized
about 3 million plants, less than half the number in the last year.
But with such a shadowy enemy, success is hard to gauge.

It's not clear if the numbers mean fewer plants are being grown on
public land or just fewer are being found.

Since the state Campaign Against Marijuana Planting was disbanded last
year, agents spend less time on aerial surveillance. And local
sheriffs in pot-growing counties have far less resources devoted to
seeking out and eradicating plants than they had in the past.

The investigation into the Kern County grow, just south of the Sequoia
National Forest, in central California, began when a game warden
spotted spilled fertilizer at a road turnout that had been a drop-off
spot for marijuana growers.

The warden set up surveillance and saw a Jeep Cherokee dropping off
supplies. Wardens pulled over the driver for speeding one night in
July. While one officer conducted a field sobriety test, the other
placed a GPS device on his car, according to an affidavit filed with
the search warrant.

The man drove to a house in Bakersfield and was seen transferring two
dark bags to a sedan, which was unloaded five houses up the block.

That second house was associated with an illegal immigrant from
Michoacan suspected to be the leader of a group that grows marijuana
on public lands, according to a Forest Service report included in the

The raids come in the early morning Aug. 3.

In all, two aircraft, 43 agents, seven scientists and land managers,
and eight volunteers would take part in the joint operation - at a
cost of $35,000 to $40,000.

Two young men in camouflage are pulled out of a brush-covered tent. A
Glock pistol is found in one of their sleeping bags, but neither man
tried to grab it. They are the fieldworkers.

Word comes on the radio that no one at the Bakersfield houses was
arrested in relation to the grows.

Of the two men arrested in the woods one is now awaiting trial; the
other pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

Neither one told investigators whom they were working for. They said
they didn't know.
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