Mexican Cartel-Style Violence Is Spreading Through California’s Marijuana Grow Fields

‚ú™ Contrary to political rhetoric, Mexican cartel-style killings and gun battles appear to have already reached the U.S. and are spreading ‚ÄĒ particularly in California…

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FILLER

he Mexican drug cartels are¬†muscling in on America’s burgeoning multi-billion-dollar marijuana industry, illegally growing large crops in the hills and valleys of Northern California.The state legalized marijuana in 2016 for adult recreational use, yet the black market continues to thrive with thousands of¬†illegal grows. Criminal syndicates, in turn, are cashing in across the U.S. on the¬†“green gold rush.”

They’re undercutting prices of legalized products¬†offered by¬†permitted farmers who follow the rules and pay taxes. And they’re exploiting workers, robbing and shooting¬†adversaries, poisoning wildlife and poaching water in a state fighting widespread drought and devastating wildfires.

Lured by America’s push toward legalized cannabis,¬†cartels have abandoned many decades-old marijuana farms in Mexico, moving their operations to Northern California¬†where they can blend in seamlessly alongside legitimate grows, said Mike Sena, executive director of Northern California’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task forces.¬†

“Why try to bring that bulk marijuana into the United States, when you can just grow it in the United States in remote locations like Mendocino County and then move it across the entire country?”

The region has experienced an explosive growth of cartel marijuana grow operations that are taking advantage of legalization and lax laws. This week, federal authorities clashed with one of two gunmen who are accused of killing a family of six ‚ÄĒ including a 16-year-old female and her baby. The murders took place last month in Tulare County, California, in what some authorities have dubbed a cartel killing.

According to the Los Angeles Times, authorities found the 16-year-old mother in a ditch cradling her baby in her arms. Both victims were shot in the head.  Initially, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux called the murder the work of a cartel, however, he later tried to walk back the claim, the Times reported.

On early Friday morning, federal agents arrested Noah David Beard, 25, and Angel ‚ÄúNanu‚ÄĚ Uriarte, 35, the¬†Los Angeles Times¬†reported. The article identified both men as Sureno Gang members. Uriarte clashed with federal agents in a gun battle. He sustained multiple injuries and had to undergo surgery. He is expected to survive. Authorities arrested Beard without a shootout.

The two men are facing six murder charges and several enhancements filed by the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office over the January 16 mass killing. Authorities also carried out several raids at homes and prison cells targeting the Nuestra Familia gang. Both the Nuestra Familia and the Surenos have a history of working with Mexican drug cartels.

Major cartels, including the top¬†powerhouses ‚ÄĒ Sinaloa and C√°rtel Jalisco Nueva Generaci√≥n or CJNG‚ÄĒ also continue trafficking billions of dollars of heroin, meth and opioids¬†into the U.S. and countries worldwide.

They’re flooding the streets with¬†fentanyl, often pressed into pills to¬†mimic prescription medicine,¬†fueling skyrocketing overdoses that¬†killed more than 100,000 people¬†during the pandemic. The¬†cartels and their drugs also have infiltrated Kentucky, where overdose deaths rose 49% in 2020, killing nearly 2,000 people.

Americans’ growing embrace of marijuana has given the cartels an avenue to expand their reach, employing the same vicious tactics they use¬†to push out competitors in the illicit opioidtrade.

John Haschak, a member of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, said the county has issued about 1,100 permits for cannabis cultivation.

Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall¬†told The Courier Journal¬†there are as many as 10,000 illegal grows in his jurisdiction, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco. He tries to target the worst 100, which is all his small force can handle in a year. “I’m fighting a dragon with a needle,” Kendall said.

Mendocino, Tulare County and other counties in Northern California have seen a dramatic rise in cartel presence due to the legal marijuana trade and lax laws around it. Additionally, various cartel figures who have become famous in Mexico are actually U.S. citizens. Among these is Jose Maria ‚ÄúZ-43‚ÄĚ Guizar Valencia a top leader with the Los Zetas cartel who was born in Tulare California and is currently awaiting sentencing on various federal drug trafficking charges in Texas.

Kendall’s county of 91,000 residents forms the base of California’s famed “Emerald Triangle,” topped by Humboldt and Trinity counties, a remote region where¬†marijuana growers far outnumber¬†police.

In Mendocino County, just 21 deputies patrol a jurisdiction that stretches over 3,506 square miles, from ocean-side cliffs on its western border to the Mendocino National Forest on the east.

The area¬†is double the geographic footprint of Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, Chicago and Denver combined.¬†Because of the twisty terrain,¬†It can take sheriff’s deputies up to an hour¬†to reach the site of an emergency or crime.

“We have international cartels successfully operating here” setting up multi-million dollar farm operations, said California Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, a former highway patrolman. “They‚Äôre poisoning our ground and stealing our water, and we have drought out here,” he said.

According to a report from USA Today, since California legalized marijuana for recreational use, Mexican cartels have moved their grow operations to the U.S. where they can hide among legal farms. The publication reported that in 2021, there were 10,000 illegal grow operations in Mendocino County alone. The issue has already led to various high-profile cases similar to the one in Tulare County last month.

The sheriff said¬†he doesn’t have enough deputies to safely serve¬†a search warrant amid increasing violence. A glimpse at what he’s dealing with: Christopher Wayne Gamble, who¬†allegedly operated large illegal crops near the town of Willits, in central Mendocino County, is charged with murdering a 17-year-old boy and his father who came from Mexico seeking¬†work, according to Mendocino County Superior Court¬†records.

On a second property Gamble owns, detectives found the victims’ headless bodies in April in a ditch under a pile of tires that had been¬†set on fire. “It‚Äôs a punishment to the person who stepped out of line,” the sheriff said. “And a message to the next person: ‘Don‚Äôt step out of line.'”

In October, a Fish and Wildlife warden stumbled onto a decomposing body stuffed in the trunk of a vehicle parked along the roadside near Covelo, in the northern part of the county.

During a drive-by shooting last year, one man was shot in the ear and another in the head in Covelo. And in July, a 27-year-old man was fatally shot in the Laytonville area, southwest of Covelo. All, according to the sheriff and court records, are linked to illegal cannabis grows.

“We’re a very short amount of time away from having heads in the square like they do down in Mexico,” Kendall said.

One of the main draws for cartels is that operating an illegal grow is only a misdemeanor offense in California and that business is cash only. Additionally, the region does not have enough law enforcement officers to patrol those grow sites and enforce laws against illegal growing operations.

Illegal growers can camouflage their grows in plain sight near permitted grows, forcing police and code enforcement to research which crops are legal or in the midst of the permit process.

Even if a grow isn’t legal, it’s only a misdemeanor crime in California ‚ÄĒ regardless of the size¬†of the crop. Typically, investigators must prove environmental damage occurred or someone was stabbed or shot to elevated the crime to a felony.

And though more than 30 states legalized marijuana for medicinal use and 18 allow adult recreational use, marijuana remains a schedule 1 drug in the U.S., making it illegal federally.

“The whole process has failed,” said Katie Delbar, a sixth-generation rancher in Mendocino County. “It has failed the growers who are trying to do it right, and it’s failed the community.”

Delbar, whose family runs a cattle ranch in the town of¬†Potter Valley is concerned about growing violence, piles of garbage left beside streams and abandoned greenhouses, called “hoop houses,” left to deteriorate after growers leave.

“There’s not enough policeman, sheriffs,¬†code enforcement agents to make sure the people who are growing are permitted,”¬†she said during a ride on a four-wheeler to check on a herd.¬†

Delbar said a Realtor and two men came to her farming community and¬†offered residents $400,000 to $500,000 cash upfront to lease¬†property for one year, promising $1 million or more at the end of the 12 months. However, the agreement required property owners¬†to stay off their own land for the entire year. “Any ponds, any waste¬†and environmental damage is the owner‚Äôs responsibility,” she said.

Armed illegal growers are also setting up operations on federal land in national forests. Investigators have found “trespass grows” in 72 national forests in 21 states, that includes all of California’s 18 national forests, said Mourad Gabriel, a regional wildlife ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service who is based in the Emerald Triangle.

An average of more than 2 million cannabis plants were eradicated on federal land from 2007-2019 ‚ÄĒ more than a million of which was grown in California, Gabriel said.

He’s concerned about the unknown impact of dangerous chemicals, including ones used to kill rodents that are banned in the U.S. and have been¬†used at some grow sites, including in the¬†Mendocino National Forest.

“They‚Äôre definitely smuggled in from Mexico,” he said. ‚ú™

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