A marijuana farm discovered and destroyed in July in the Belleview area of Tuolumne County was an all too normal sight.
The garden was divided into three large plots slanting down a hillside-- linked by a network of tubes sucking water from a makeshift pool lined with blue tarps.
There were two camping areas, nestled between the gardens and bordering manzanita trees, littered with Spanish-language comic books, cookware, toilet paper, Mexican food products, a torn tarp serving as a canopy for dirt-caked sleeping bags, and the usual environmentally hazardous products: bags of fertilizer, mole traps and insect poison.
There was no sign of the people -- most likely "Mexican nationals" working for a "Mexican drug cartel," officials said -- tending nearly 10,000 marijuana plants worth an estimated $21 million.
As the routine goes, law enforcement officials from several law enforcement agencies ripped the plants from the ground, threw them into piles, bundled them together by large nets and hooked the bundles to a long line draped from a helicopter hovering above.
The plants were then flown out to be incinerated.
"It's pretty sad," said Ryan Pontecorvo, regional operational commander for the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting ( CAMP ), while looking at the mess left behind.
The bust represented only a fraction of the plants pulled from Tuolumne and Calaveras counties this year. Law enforcement officials have yanked more than 200,000 plants in Tuolumne County -- double the previous record, set last year -- and more than 26,000 plants from Calaveras County.
In total, CAMP -- which aids local agencies with manpower and equipment, including helicopters -- this year has seized more than 4.4 million plants statewide, compared to last year's record of 2.9 million.
The rising volume of marijuana being grown poses problems for law enforcement, but so does the evolving nature of the clandestine trade, which today involves hundreds of operators rather than a few big cartels.
"The amount of illegally cultivated marijuana is obviously on the rise," said Sgt. Craig Davis, Tuolumne Narcotic Team commander.
Despite proposed solutions to the problem -- ranging from legalizing pot, to throwing more money at eradication and investigations, to harsher penalties for those who are caught -- there's no fool-proof answer to ending the epidemic.
The one non-typical characteristic of the Belleview-area bust was the location.
"It's rare for it to be so close to residential neighborhoods," said A.J. Ford, spokesman for the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office.
But the garden illustrates that marijuana farmers will set up just about anywhere these days.
"As they adopt their techniques to our techniques, they change up their tactics to sneak it by us," said Diana Nichols, a special agent with the Stanislaus National Forest. "When I first started, they were only growing at elevations around 4,000 feet. We found a garden in the Inyo National Forest at over 9,000 feet. They've found gardens here ( Stanislaus Forest ) that were over 7,000 feet."
Sometimes growers use rural private property, as in Belleview, unbeknownst to the land owner. But most of the gardens are found on U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service or Bureau of Land Management land.
It's problematic from the public safety standpoint, and also an environmental one.
"Pictures cannot capture what goes on out there," Nichols said. "Environmentally, it's a mess."
Grow sites tear up the ground, use highly-toxic chemicals and leave behind months worth of trash in remote areas where water quality and wildlife are affected, officials say.
Even when gardens are raided, the damage to the environment has already been done.
"They're destroying our public lands," said Kevin Mayer, special agent with the Sierra National Forest. "They're killing wildlife -- mountain lions, bear and deer. They're killing fish. They're poisoning our water system."
Mayer estimates that during the growing season-- typically between spring and fall -- there are between 2,000 and 5,000 people living on public lands growing marijuana in California.
After the plants are eradicated, agents do their best to clean up the damage, but it's a tall task-- especially because most gardens are in very remote areas of the forest.
"Everything they pack in, we have to pack out," Mayer said. "It all needs to get brought out."
Many times, law enforcement agents won't try to nab the often-armed men protecting the marijuana gardens because of potential lethal dangers.
Also, they are hard to catch, agents say.
For example, marijuana growers evaded law enforcement agents from the U.S. Forest Service and TNT in an August sting on a grow site near Cherry Lake.
At the site, more than 5,000 plants, 100 pounds of trimmed and processed marijuana and three firearms were found.
"At the first sign of danger, they're like rabbits," Nichols said. "They know all the tiny holes in the forest. So, a lot of times, it's hit or miss. We have caught them."
In one of the few cases where arrests were made, Fidencio Castro-Meza, 29, and Jose Guadalupe Castro-Meza, 35, in September were caught and charged with felony marijuana growing charges after community members tipped off agents to a grow site in Groveland. The bust also yielded 799 plants and a high-caliber rifle.
As marijuana gardens become more prevalent, federal investigators are seeing a shift in who's behind the operations and how much men like Fidencio and Jose Castro-Meza might know about the larger operations.
At one point, about a decade ago, the gardens were mostly controlled by a handful of influential Mexican-national drug cartels, said Brent Wood, lead investigator with the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement.
For instance, in 2001, after years of investigation, nine members of the Mexico-based Magana drug cartel pleaded guilty in federal court to growing large marijuana gardens in the Stanislaus, Sierra, Sequoia and Mendocino national forests.
The cartel was similar to the type movies paint -- rich and influential. Investigators said the family owned lavish resorts, among other businesses, all over Mexico.
"The year after we did that, there was a substantial drop in the amount of marijuana found in the forests," Wood said. "But soon after, it went right back up."
Nowadays, Wood said, it's no longer a few influential Mexican drug cartels, like the Magana family, behind the massive amount of marijuana growing in California.
"There's hundreds and hundreds of smaller groups now," Wood said.
The groups are still predominately Mexican Americans or Mexican nationals, Wood said.
Also, the armed men protecting the gardens are no longer thought of as hired hands that know little about the operation, but trusted associates, even family members, Wood said.
"What we've learned listening to their lines is that the people in the forest are not the guys you pick up on the street corner but trusted members of the organization," he said.
"Closer to harvest time, they might get the workers from the corner."
Once the crop is harvested, dragged out of the forest, dried and processed, it's shipped all over the nation.
"The distribution is pretty quick," Wood said. "Once it's dried, it goes all over the place. We've followed it to Chicago and New York. And it's also local. They do amazing things. They'll trade marijuana for cars."
Many have opinions on how to stop the growing marijuana epidemic in California.
The most debated is legalization. The theory goes that legalizing it would kill the black market for the drug.
Marijuana advocates across the state are currently gathering signatures to get as many as three marijuana legalization measures on the 2010 state ballot.
And some polls show that voters would support lifting the state's pot prohibition-- backing legalization advocates who say it could cure many of the state's financial woes.
"Law enforcement officers point to a 2,000 percent increase in plants seized in the past decade and hold that as a sign of success," said Aaron Smith, the policy director of Marijuana Policy Project. "But these efforts have no effect on the widespread prevalence of marijuana in our society.
"At a time when California is facing drastic budget cuts, it's beyond irresponsible to continue this costly and ineffective policy," Smith added. "The only way to get these illegal grows out of our parks and neighborhoods is by ending marijuana prohibition and regulating the drug's production. After all, you don't see wine producers sneaking into forests and setting up covert vineyards."
Many in law enforcement say the idea is ludicrous.
"You have a drug whose potency has increased five to 10 times of what it use to be," said Nichols. "It is really becoming a true gateway drug."
Law enforcement officials say that more funding, stricter laws, and broader use of federal laws in prosecuting cases could begin to clean up the problem.
"State charges are 18 months in a best-case scenario," said Mayer. "Ultimately, we don't have the resources."
"If it's state charges, it's absolutely a waste of time," Wood agreed. "Why make the effort?"
Wood said he currently has a team of eight investigating marijuana growing networks. "We have an average of 25 investigations going at once," he said. "Five of them we can maybe get our hands on."
October 17, 2009