Police Chief Carmen Smith says he knows three things about suspected drug trafficker Artemio Corona: He's from Mexico, prefers a Glock .40-caliber handgun, and is quite possibly growing marijuana on the Indian reservation that Mr. Smith patrols.
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Last year, Mr. Smith's detectives identified Mr. Corona as the alleged mastermind behind several large marijuana plantations on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in central Oregon. These "grows," as police call them, had a harvest of 12,000 adult plants, with an estimated street value of $10 million. Five suspects were arrested and pleaded guilty to federal trafficking charges. But their alleged boss, Mr. Corona, who has not been indicted, remains a "person of interest" to federal authorities and hasn't been found.
Cultivating marijuana in Indian country represents a new twist in the decades-old illicit drug trade between Mexico and the U.S., the world's largest drug-consuming market. For decades, Mexican drug gangs grew marijuana in Mexico, smuggled it across the border, and sold it in the U.S. But in the past few years, they have done what any burgeoning business would do: move closer to their customers.
Illicit pot farms, the vast majority run by gangs with ties to Mexico, are growing fast across the country. The U.S. Forest Service has discovered pot farms in 61 national forests across 16 states this year, up from 49 forests in 10 states last year. New territories include public land in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Alabama and Virginia.
The area where Mexican gangs seem to be expanding the fastest is on Indian reservations. In Washington state, tribal police seized more than 233,000 pot plants on Indian land last year, almost 10 times the 2006 figure. Pot seized on Washington's reservations accounted for about half of all pot seized on both private and public land last year. Police are finding pot farms on reservations stretching from California to South Dakota.
"These criminal organizations are growing in Indian country at an alarming rate," says Chief Smith. "The [growers] on our reservation were sent directly from Mexico."
At Chief Smith's reservation, police found trash piles that included crushed Modelo-brand beer cans and tortilla packages. They also recovered cellphones with a flurry of calls to and from Michoacán, Mexico -- an important drug-producing state. One grow in Washington state's Yakama Reservation featured a makeshift shrine to Mexico's unofficial patron saint to smugglers, Jesús Malverde, complete with votive candles and a photograph of the mythical figure.
Part of the trend is due to unforeseen consequences of stepped-up security on the U.S. border to slow the tide of illegal immigration from Mexico. Tighter borders make it harder to smuggle pot north, creating the need to produce the cash crop closer to market.
U.S. officials say the quality, and thus price, of U.S. grown weed is much higher than that grown in Mexico. The Mexican variety, typically full of stems and leaves, with a lower content of THC, the active narcotic in marijuana, brings in about $500 to $700 a pound, estimates Washington State Patrol Lt. Richard Wiley, who monitors marijuana grows on the state's public lands. By contrast, a pound of Washington-grown marijuana can command $2,500 locally or up to $6,000 on the East Coast.
Marijuana is a lucrative business for Mexican cartels, generating at least $9 billion a year in estimated revenues, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. Mexican gangs are relying even more on income from pot, U.S. drug authorities say, as they burn through cash fighting each other and the Mexican government, which has launched a crackdown. The math is tempting. Start-up expense for about dozen plots, with 10,000 plants each, is well under $500,000, U.S. officials estimate, including the cost of hiring 100 workers to plant marijuana and then several "tenders" to water them for three to four months until harvest. Incidental costs might include generators, PVC pipe and food supplies for the growers. Those plants could fetch about $120 million on the open market. With such impressive profit margins, a cartel can afford to have dozens of grows spotted and eradicated for every one that it harvests successfully.
The tighter U.S.-Mexican border is also prompting an unwillingness by illegal farm workers to cross back and forth. These migrants have decided to stay put in El Norte rather than return to Mexico after harvest -- creating a year-round labor force in rural areas. In a down economy, those workers face long stretches of unemployment -- leaving them easily swayed by offers to make quick cash growing marijuana.
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That seems to be happening in Indian country. Chief Smith, who is a Wichita tribal member from Oklahoma but came here for the job, says the cartel growing pot on his reservation was paying tenders $2,000 a month each to water and watch their plots.
Indian reservations are full of transients, either people from other tribes whose members have married into local families, or undocumented farmworkers from Mexico. "Around here it's not easy to tell who's a tribal member and who's Hispanic," says Police Chief Keith Hutchenson of Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Tribe. That makes it easier for Mexican drug traffickers to blend in, he adds.
A decade ago, police in Washington state say most of the state's pot was grown by hobbyists indoors, using high-powered lamps. But that has changed in recent years to larger, outdoor grows that are more "corporate," run by sophisticated Mexican gangs.
At first, the Mexican growers began using remote public parkland in California, and have since expanded toward neighboring Oregon and Washington. Both states have two things gangs need: lots of unguarded forest land and lots of cheap Mexican labor.
Mexican gangs also are moving east, into Idaho and the Dakotas, using reservations to grow pot as well as distribute narcotics smuggled from Mexico and Canada, according to U.S. law enforcement.
Mexico-based cartels exploit several conditions unique to reservations, starting with chronically understaffed tribal police departments. Overlapping jurisdictions between tribal courts and outside agencies -- from the local sheriff to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration -- confuse the issue of who should take the lead in prosecuting crimes.
Federal authorities coordinate with tribal authorities on issues related to investigations, search warrants and other criminal proceedings, says Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Bickers of Portland, who prosecuted the men growing pot on the Warm Springs Reservation.
Another attraction is the sheer size of the jurisdictions. Colville Reservation is 2,200 square miles and patrolled by just 19 tribal police officers. The ancestral homes of tribes such as Oregon's Umatilla, Idaho's Nez Perce and Washington's Yakama have thousands of acres of often uninhabited land, and also abut huge tracts of public land.
The cartels often mix the marijuana plants in with other crops, such as corn, or plant them deep inside forests amid pine and oak trees to make them difficult to detect from air patrols.
The reservations aren't only home to marijuana farms but are becoming sites for gun trafficking. At the Yakama homeland, a 1.4-million-acre reservation near Toppenish, Wash., a Mexican gang allegedly has planted hundreds of acres of marijuana and run guns to Mexico. U.S. investigators say the guns have ended up in the hands of Mexico's most feared paramilitary drug group, Los Zetas.
There is enough gun trafficking that Washington state now ranks fourth as a supplier of weapons to Mexican drug gangs after Texas, California and Arizona, according to police. "A weapon bought here for $1,000 can be sold for $3,000 or even $6,000" south of the border, says Michael Akins, lead investigator for a multiagency drug task force, called Operation Green Jam. "That might buy cocaine for $3,000 a pound, which then could be sold in Washington for $20,000 a pound."
State police believe gunmen from Los Zetas, a group initially formed by deserters from Mexico's army and famed for its brutality, are already in Washington to provide security during harvests. In 2008 police recovered a small arsenal of powerful weapons near the Yakama grows.
"AR-15s and Berettas, mostly. At least a dozen," says Lt. Wiley, of the Washington State Patrol.
There is enough money involved in growing to tempt some legal residents. In September, law-enforcement officials in Benton County, Wash., busted three men working at a private ranch owned by Jose Luis Cardenas, a legal immigrant from Mexico. He allegedly earned $3,000 from a drug gang to rent his barn for eight days, the Benton County officials said. Stalks of fresh marijuana were dried and picked by workers arranged in a circle, like an old-time shucking bee, according to state police. Mr. Cardenas, who was charged with harboring and abetting illegal production of a controlled substance, is in custody, and didn't respond to requests for comment.
The operations can be elaborate. One site at the Yakama reservation sat more than a dozen miles from the nearest paved road. Tapping water from an abandoned livestock trough, growers had workers string more than 1,000 yards of plastic irrigation pipe down to a cistern that fed a primitive treetop sprinkler system.
Tribal police uncovered another irrigation network in July at the Colville Reservation, just south of the Canadian border. After damming a small spring, guerrilla cultivators strung drip irrigation pipe hundreds of yards to marijuana fields. At one spot, the gang dug a rustic cistern from the crater of a fallen ponderosa pine. Nearby, they ran a gasoline-powered generator hitched to a pump that took spring water to a second cistern almost a mile away. The jury-rigged spillway nourished a total of 24,000 plants along the mountain slope.
That grow at Colville was found deep in the backwoods, where the tribe harvests timber for two reservation lumber mills. Colville Police Chief Matt Haney suspects immigrant workers hired to replant trees end up doing reconnaissance work for drug organizations.
"We've got over a million acres and forest fires are common," the chief explains. "Mexican laborers are hired by the U.S. Forest Service to do replanting, and work for the tribe's timber operations, too. They notice where there are streams, where there aren't streams. What can be reached by road, what can't. They share that information with some very sophisticated growers."
Warms Springs Reservation police say the drug gangs planting marijuana on the reservation since 2007 may have had Mexican workers spotting sites for them. Workers are often hired by tribal enterprises, including a small company that collects pine cones and fronds to fashion into Christmas tree ornaments.
John Webb, a tribal police detective, says collecting pine cones gives outsiders an excuse to be on the reservation -- something normally not allowed -- and form friendships.
Mr. Webb doesn't know whether pine-cone collecting prompted Oscar Castillo Zapién to come to Warm Springs. But in September 2008, Mr. Castillo was arrested for assault after allegedly firing his Glock semiautomatic pistol into a van departing from his home, striking one passenger in the neck. Eventually police linked him to the outdoor marijuana grows, together with at least three cousins, Héctor Castillo, Alejandro Zapién and Alfredo Olivera.
The men told authorities, as part of a plea bargain, that they reported to Artemio Corona, who was also a relative. In court papers, some of the suspects claimed to have been terrorized by Mr. Corona, who they say threatened them with his own Glock as he supervised work in the secret marijuana gardens.
At first, the Mexican suspects thought operating on tribal land shielded them from prosecution, says Mr. Webb. While the tribal court declined to prosecute, federal authorities were eager to take the case. To avoid the cost of trial, the U.S. attorney in Portland allowed the five defendants to plead guilty to a relatively minor charge of "conspiracy to manufacture marijuana," and receive sentences of up to 70 months in prison. Four are now serving time in U.S. federal prisons. One received probation.
Tribal police in Washington and Oregon say they expect Mexican gangs to keep reappearing every year during the summer harvest season. Says Chief Smith: "If we ever catch them, we'll run them off the reservation."
By JOEL MILLMAN
November 5, 2009
The Wall Street Journal