Oregon battles Mexican drug gangs’ marijuana fields
This is not about your drug habit,its about Mexican criminals ( who are not vegan or hip and who love to cut off heads with machetes) ruining every square inch of Oregon. Tell That to Congress and Obama the Idiot
September 28, 2009, 8:11PM
Michael Lloyd, The OregonianPolice uprooted more than 180,000 marijuana plants this summer in grow operations in remote areas throughout the state, such as this bust on the Warm Springs reservation in August. Warm Springs Tribal Police Narcotics Detective John Webb (right) led the interagency team that seized more than 1,600 plants. Mexican drug gangs bumped up dimensions of their marijuana plantations in Oregon this summer, in one instance producing a complex of 30,827 plants in the remote canyons of Malheur County. The wholesale value of that crop was estimated at $64.7 million.
Police uprooted that plantation and 15 others this summer in counties from one end of the state to the other, with drug teams doubling last year’s seizures. They also arrested 35 Mexican drug suspects and expect to cuff a few more before frosts signal an end to their work.View full size
But Mexico’s drug gangs continue to bedevil authorities in Oregon. Investigators complain that they frequently pick off bottom rungs of the drug enterprises, mostly growers and those who supply them food and fertilizer, but have had no luck reaching the kingpins who finance the operations.
Police interrogate gardeners, pore through their suspects’ cell phones and sometimes track the movements of those who supply the growers — all in hopes of picking up the trail to Mr. Big. But they acknowledge that getting useful information out of low-level grunts is a little like asking Nike’s factory workers in China what they know about Phil Knight’s finances.
“It’s horribly frustrating,” says Chris P. Brown, deputy superintendent of the Oregon State Police. Brown formerly was the sheriff of Douglas County, where Mexican drug gangs set up growers with guns and garden hoses in the mountainous 5,134-square-mile county he was sworn to protect. “Some of these guys you catch in the gardens, they don’t even know what state they’re in.”
When investigators do catch suspects higher up the gangs’ corporate ladders, they find it difficult to turn them into snitches; many would rather serve prison terms than inform on kingpins of the notoriously violent gangs who might harm their families in Mexico.
“We do occasionally have cooperators,” says John Deits, the top federal drug prosecutor in Oregon. But juries often disbelieve lone informants. And so far, says Deits, tying Oregon’s big marijuana plantations to the money in Mexico has proved impossible.
So police are left with a cat-and-mouse game that plays out every summer.
Much of Oregon’s outdoor marijuana is put in the ground in April and May on remote stretches of federal and tribal land. As the plants grow, police get tips from hikers, off-road motorcyclists and others who stumble across the gardens.
Drug teams spend part of the summer identifying plantations from the air, then keep watch on gardeners before moving in to take down the plants. Most of the time, police and federal agents find rows of well-tended cannabis, rustic campsites and the carcasses of animals poached by garden tenders.
But the growers are typically gone by the time police arrive, although in some cases they haven’t been gone long.
“A lot of times they’re pretty quick runners,” says Lt. Curt Strickland, commander of Douglas County’s interagency narcotics team. Police surround the camps to catch those who run for it, he says, but the mountainous forests and hollows make for porous perimeters.
Strickland’s drug team has a hard enough time trying to catch growers and track movements of those who supply them with provisions. Working up the food chain to the financiers in Mexico is a pursuit left to the Drug Enforcement Administration, he says.
“I’m trying to keep my end of the woods safe,” Strickland says, “and I’m not necessarily trying to solve all the world’s problems.”
Police hit a bonanza when they swept into the vast Malheur County plantation Aug. 2. They arrested eight Mexicans tending a trio of massive gardens on U.S. Bureau of Land Management acreage along Whitehorse Creek. And they got a glimpse into the clever workings of large-scale marijuana gardeners.
The accused growers cleared sagebrush and dug a deep cistern to feed water, by gravity, from hoses to three massive gardens. It appeared they had cleared more sagebrush for next year and hurled it into the creek, says Carolyn Freeborn, the BLM field manager for the Jordan Resource Area.
Oregon’s drug teams uprooted an estimated 180,000 marijuana plants this summer, with perhaps 40,000 more in the offing as the season winds down, says Chris Gibson, director of the federal program that targets drugs in Oregon’s high-intensity trafficking areas.View full size
This year’s seizures account for roughly $400 million in lost profit to marijuana growers, most linked to Mexico. That figure, says Gibson, is based on a DEA estimate that a typical 5-foot plant laden with buds sells to midlevel dealers for about $2,100.
Police in Oregon seized a record 299,921 marijuana plants in 2007, the bulk of which were grown by Mexican drug gangs, Gibson says. Last year was dismal for growers because snow clung to hillsides late into the spring in much of the state, preventing them from putting pot in the ground, and police seized just 77,934 plants.
Drug gangs produce far more marijuana in California, where authorities seize millions of plants a year. But drug enforcement officials in Oregon say that their counterparts in the Golden State have far deeper pockets to find and seize the plants and that it’s anyone’s guess on how many Mexican-grown marijuana plants go undiscovered here.
“I like to think that we certainly get our share,” says Strickland. “But they wouldn’t grow them if they weren’t making any money.”
It might seem wasteful to spend scarce public resources seizing pot plants, especially in a state that tolerates the drug. But placement of the gardens by Mexican nationals has huge consequences for drug wars on both sides of the border.
Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on his country’s drug trafficking in 2007, more than 9,000 people have been killed in confrontations between police and drug gangs.
Government authorities here say proceeds from West Coast marijuana plantations have helped Mexico’s drug gangs smuggle U.S. firearms over the border. Some of the crime weapons recovered by Mexican police are traced to Oregon, although most are purchased in border states such as California and Texas.
Drug teams taking down cannabis in Oregon typically recover a few firearms. Two years ago, investigators raiding a remote marijuana patch near Alsea Falls found 19-year-old Jose Fernandez-Alcazar, from the state of Michoacan, asleep in a drying tent, a stolen double-barrel shotgun at his side. A federal judge recently sentenced him to seven years in prison.
As Oregon’s drug teams pulled up cannabis this summer, they discovered that some of the sites — including the vast Malheur County plantation — had been used by growers in previous years.
Drug investigators know they can’t possibly prevent Mexican gangs from putting down roots on their turf. But they hope the pressure of their helicopter flyovers, eradications and mounting federal indictments of growers discourage them from returning every spring.
“What we’re gonna do is make it hard for them to make a profit in Douglas County,” says Strickland. “It’s all about money. So if it’s not profitable for them, they’ll go somewhere else.”