SANTA ROSA, Calif.—Authorities are trying to determine what's causing an increase in violence that has left five suspects dead during raids of marijuana gardens across Northern California during the past several weeks.
Most recently, one suspect was fatally shot in a gunbattle Wednesday when more than 60 law enforcement officers raided a marijuana garden in a remote area of Mendocino County.
Drug agents have been raiding marijuana grows across the region for years, but the raids this summer have turned increasingly violent.
"It's not the way it used to be," said Mendocino County Sheriff's Lt. Rusty Noe, who has led the county's marijuana team for eight years. Two of the fatal pot field shootings involved deputies from his department.
Sonoma County officials have begun treating marijuana eradication efforts like SWAT operations, Sonoma County Sheriff's Capt. Matt McCaffrey said.
"These aren't the same marijuana gardens as 20 years ago," McCaffrey said.
Though most suspects at the marijuana gardens flee when law enforcement officials raid a grow, some pull out their weapons.
"It's possible they're acting out with violence because they feel pushback from law enforcement," said Rusty Payne, a spokesman with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"We (federal agents) haven't seen this," Payne said. "Five is a lot."
Local authorities believe the influence of Mexican drug cartels, more aggressive law enforcement tactics and the increase in large-scale pot operations might be contributing to the increase in violence.
With marijuana growing suspects becoming more aggressive, members of the public are being warned to stay away from marijuana gardens in remote areas.
At a church camp west of Lake Sonoma, staff members have begun warning campers to stay close to the buildings and off the trails that wind through the area.
In Mendocino County, the public was warned to stay away from a popular mountain trail after a group of hunters was confronted by armed men and told to leave the area.
Before the confrontation, the hunters had noticed drip irrigation lines nearby.
Information from: The Santa Rosa Press Democrat,
The Associated Press