The Forest Through the Trees
By Tommy Purvis
The cultivation and trade of black market marijuana in the Inland Empire and the rest of the Golden State is in a prime position for a bumper crop harvest next grow season. Experts predict that short-sighted Sacramento budget cuts to the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) and more intensive border security will only embolden Mexican trafficking organizations to move a larger portion of their grow operations north. The California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement joint task force was established in the early ’80s to work with federal agents in an annual late summer search-and-destroy mission for deep forest cannabis gardens. A majority of the confiscated crop is bound to become contraband in a cartel supply line that provides the Midwest market and beyond with a lower grade earthy high.
The large-scale assault on local public lands has prompted the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to enhance its local partnership with local law enforcement to fight the criminal element and environmental calamity. Clandestine grow operations come at a great cost for the San Bernardino National Forest and the diverse mountain ecosystems. Prior CAMP raids in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains in the past five years have led to the takedown of 114 grow sites and the destruction of 620,000 plants. The average farm plot is between 10 to 20 acres and would cost at least $15,000 per acre to restore. But far too often the eradicated plants are airlifted out while illegal fertilizers, pesticides and wildlife poison is left behind to further degrade the altered habitat.
“Clear and Present Danger”
The Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control held a session in early December to discuss the scope of the underground farms in the California forest.
“The illegal cultivation of marijuana on our National Forest System is a clear and present danger to the public and the environment,” USFS director of law enforcement David Ferrell told the caucus. “Many marijuana sites found on national forests are under cultivation by drug trafficking organizations that are sophisticated and include armed guards, counter-surveillance methods, logistics support and state-of-the-art growing practices [Editor’s note: emphasis is ours].”
To date, the USFS has completed cleanup and restoration on 335 former grow operations statewide. It took the removal of more than 130 tons of trash, 300 pounds of pesticides, five tons of fertilizer and nearly 260 miles of irrigation piping to restore some semblance of nature. Many of the chemicals used to grow the gardens to full potential are banned in the United States. Native vegetation is pulled from the soil before seeds are put into the ground. Sometimes forest canopies are thinned for sunlight. In one-time-use locations that are used for about six months, human waste and trash is left to pile up. Water is diverted from streams, lakes and reservoirs. The USFS claims a garden of 1,000 plants requires up to 5,000 gallons of water a day to reach harvest.
After grow season is over, winter rains create severe soil erosion that washes poisons and trash into streams and rivers—including the nudist favorite Deep Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest that is fed from Holcomb Creek in a northward confluence to the Mojave River. The state-designated Wild Trout Stream that provides water to the high desert was under consideration for Congressional designation as a Wild and Scenic River.
The steep terrain of the numerous canyons and washes that connect to Lytle Creek provide optimal conditions for covert large scale marijuana farms. Longtime residents of the neighborhoods that line the heavily brushed narrow canyon that drains the eastern two-thirds of the San Gabriel Mountains have extensive knowledge of past grow sites. Cartel operatives are known to use numerous turnouts on the 13-mile-long dead end road to drop off supplies to four-man crews that harvest the crop. The early risers in town who search can often spot puffs of smoke from coffee can campfires at sunrise in the later months of grow season.
The more successful gardens will use a steep ridgeline with limited front side foot traffic as a defensible boundary. The high ground in the strategic layout is for tactical observation and assault. A sawed-off shotgun was found by a USFS agent in a grow site further north in the state. The workers often camp in the interior of the garden where the higher value product is grown and cured for transportation to a nearby distribution hub. In past raids, law enforcement officials have found altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe with twig crosses laced with marijuana leaves. There are often agricultural magazines printed in Spanish along with the brands and labels on refuse that is left behind.
“The grow season before last, a high school student came back from a hike with two duffel bags full of stress [slang term for cheaply grown Mexican-grown marijuana],” a local male that spoke to me on the condition of anonymity told me after the last grow season came to an end. He says farmers will often plant a few rows of low-grade dummy crops on the perimeter of the camp to satisfy the occasional thief who loads up, and then beats a quick retreat.
Defying Gravity . . . and the Law
The 2010 grow season resulted in some of the highest numbers on record for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Marijuana Team. In 30 CAMP raids that netted a total of 212,000 plants, 32,000 plants alone were found in an eradication effort along the ridgeline and inside the steep walls of Lower Lytle Creek Canyon. Another 3,000 plants were found in the nearby Miller Narrows ridgeline and canyon of the same time. The area has little law enforcement presence on the asphalt let alone the fire roads that provide access in and out of the canyon.
In September of the same season, just across I-15 and a several miles north of Lytle Creek, a robber—that had set up an ambush for marijuana farm operators—scared off a family in search of a hunting spot on Forest Service Road 2N49. Several days later, the wannabe robber was on the losing end of another attempt when he was outgunned by Spanish-speaking guards on the perimeter of the farm. He ran through the garden and made a phone call to 911. He was airlifted out the next morning from a steep ridgeline above Devore, along with 3,000 more plants.
A Boy Scout troop on a day hike in Lytle Creek several seasons ago came across an elaborate grow site operation that sent water uphill through a black pipe lined with cotton. The local informant claims the drip irrigation system did not need the aid of a pump or generator to defy gravity. In that raid, a gunman who defended the garden was shot by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Another armed farmer escaped into the wilderness.
20 Million Plants . . . and Counting
In 2010, CAMP’s operational cost to taxpayers was more than $3 million. Sacramento funds account for a third of the task force budget while the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) contributes more than half. The rest of the cost is absorbed by local law enforcement agencies that assist in the raids. The 28-year-old program that has eradicated more than 20 million plants was defunded in a $71 million budget cut to the Division of Law Enforcement before last season was half through. California Attorney General Kamala Harris alerted municipalities that the status of future eradication efforts were up in the air.
The spokespersons for both the San Bernardino USFS and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department each insist that the budget cuts will not affect local CAMP operations for the next grow season.
To highlight the regional commitment, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) was aboard a CAMP helicopter in late September to observe the City Creek and Mud Flat eradication efforts near Running Springs. Aerial surveillance throughout the duration of the grow season is often key to successful law enforcement raids. If plants are taken too early in the increasingly longer cycle, gardeners will often seed another location. In this small-scale, end-of-the-season bust, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Marijuana Team, U.S. Forest Service Agents and the Drug Enforcement Agency were able to chop down 5,686 plants with clippers and machetes in six hours from both locations.
A Dire Future
Former DEA Agent William Ruzzamenti is the director of the Central Valley High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The jurisdiction of the Department of Justice task force extends from north of Sacramento to outside of Lancaster in search of methamphetamine, powder cocaine and marijuana in transit from Mexico and other domestic sources to local and cross-country destinations.
Ruzzamenti—an expert on illegal grow farms and the trafficking methods of Mexico-based criminal organizations—predicts a dire future for the public lands in California. He says that the CAMP budget cuts in combination with the closure of state parks will give free reign to marijuana farmers.
Ruzzamenti claims that, at current efforts, the CAMP operations are able to trim one-tenth of the annual statewide marijuana harvest. He claims that California has become the leading supplier of black-market marijuana to the nation—surpassing Mexico. Federal agents were able to discover the use of cloned starter plants several years ago by marijuana farmers in California. The practice has since spread to Oregon and Kentucky outdoor grow sites due to the higher quality plants that can grow with a more established root system. It is likely the clones followed the flow of marijuana and other contraband across the nation on I-5 and I-80 from Sacramento. The northern interstates and back roads are subject to far less checkpoints than those in Mexico’s borderland area.
Last summer, the Mexican military took down the largest marijuana grow farm on record just 300 miles south of Tijuana. The half-mile square plot of land was covered with a black protective mesh canopy in the middle of a harsh desert environment. A series of deep wells were dug for water and the toxic-to-humans herbicide Gramoxone (also known as Paraquat) was applied to the crop in heavy doses. An army general that was a little nervous to find such a massive operation outside the Sierra Madre Mountains estimates the 120-man work crew would have been able to harvest 120 tons of marijuana in a cycle.
It is likely the product would have been moved into the U.S. market via a network of increasingly sophisticated trafficking tunnels under the Tijuana Plaza. The cluster of subterranean passageways surface on the north side of the secondary buffer zone fence in the 3.5-mile-wide Otay Mesa warehouse district. The vacant properties in the expansive development area are prime real-estate for those making these types of tunnels. In the past five years, an Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) effort known as the San Diego Tunnel Task Force has found seven sophisticated cross-border marijuana trafficking tunnels.
Joe Garcia, the deputy special agent in charge for Homeland Security investigations in the task force, describes the 618-yard tunnel found in November as an underground railroad. The $1-million project was dug for about a year to prepare for the end of the marijuana grow season. It started south of the Tijuana International Airport and had wood floors from one end to the other with lights, ventilation, elevators and, of course, tracks. It surfaced inside a fake produce warehouse operator in Otay Mesa. Federal agents advise commercial real estate brokers and tenants regarding the possibility of suspicious activity that could be tunnel traffic-related.
As the Sinaloa Cartel solidifies a firm grip on the Tijuana Plaza, Garcia says the lack of CAMP operations in the California forest will open the door to even more clandestine pot farms that can bypass the security apparatus of the U.S.-Mexico border.