Dirty business

Cartels add danger, environmental degradation to local landscape

Sheriff’s deputies take the CN&R to the site of a recent cartel bust near Plumas National Forest.

Sheriff’s deputies take the CN&R to the site of a recent cartel bust near Plumas National Forest.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

In a pine grove just off highway 70 on the doorstep of the Plumas National Forest, evidence of a recently busted Mexican marijuana cartel’s 6,000-plant operation is abundant.

Though the cartel camp was shut down in late August, there are still lines strung among the trees where drying marijuana was hung and a complex irrigation system is intact. There are open bags of fertilizer, car batteries, bottles of rat poison, empty and full 5-gallon propane tanks, bags of filthy clothes and every other kind of trash imaginable strewn across the forest floor.

“They don’t care, they just leave it,” said Det. Doug Patterson of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office Special Enforcement Unit. “It’s sickening. I mean, these are our forests.”

For Patterson, bases of thick stalks protruding out of indents in the soil where he and his team sheared thousands of marijuana plants on the verge of harvest are signs of a job well done—another cartel marijuana operation will fail to bring its product to market.

In a typical year, Butte County will shut down 20 to 25 large-scale Mexican cartel grows through the Special Enforcement Unit. Cartels are attracted to remote reaches of the county because the rugged terrain provides plenty of natural concealment for a garden and a major obstacle for law enforcement.

Although the Sheriff’s Office is occasionally tipped off by campers or hunters who stumble into a pot patch, operations are typically discovered by air. The county has one plane and two helicopters at its disposal specifically for locating remote gardens.

This site, like many, has a complex irrigation system that diverted a mountain stream to water the 6,000 plants.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

Once the unit is sure of a garden’s location, it will go in on foot. Some camps are within walking distance from major roadways, while others present more of a challenge.

“There are gardens that are an absolute nightmare,” said Patterson, who has been a part of the SEU for nine years. “You’re about ready to die by the time you get into that garden. It’s hot. There are steep canyon walls, very difficult terrain well away from a road.”

It is critical the unit stealthily navigates the forests and mountains en route to cartel operations, as prolonged surveillance of the growers is the best way to collect evidence and build a case. As a result, they travel in heavy camouflage and face paint and make an effort to limit the size of their team.

“The fewer people we take in, the less noise we make going in there,” Patterson said. “Eight is a nice number, where we can keep it nice and quiet and still have enough bodies to surround the garden.”

Concealed in the undergrowth, the unit will often wait through the night for the growers to reveal themselves rather than seek them out. The cartels often fashion elaborate tunnels and processing areas out of branches and brush to hide their activities from aerial patrols, so the safest option is to stay put.

“It makes sense to let them come to us, especially at night,” Patterson said. “The first priority is locating the people and the guns, not the plants. The plants aren’t going to kill us.”

The cartels post armed guards who have been known to level their barrels at hunters and law enforcement alike. However, once the alarm is raised, the growers are more inclined to disappear into the forest via established escape routes. In the Highway 70 case, only one cartel member was taken into custody.

The cartel site is littered with trash and debris.

Photo By Kyle Delmar

Even after many hours of trudging through the forest and lying in wait in the undergrowth, the unit immediately gets to work once cartel members are detained or abandon their camp.

“After that, you get to come back and cut down five or six thousand plants and bundle them up,” Patterson said. “Not fun.”

Once a cartel member is taken into custody, cases rarely go to a jury trial due to overwhelming evidence. Once convicted, they will serve their sentence and get deported to their home country.

In more than 90 percent of cases, Patterson said, their home country is Mexico.

For all the danger posed to the public by an armed encampment in the forest, the environmental risk is just as great.

The Highway 70 site is a prime example. The cartel diverted an entire stream high on the mountain so gravity’s pull brought water to each plant through plastic feeder tubes, cleared manzanita shrubs and trees to allow for more sunlight, constructed a makeshift stove fueled by propane in a tinder-dry brush dwelling, and left various toxic chemicals to seep into the groundwater. It was an environmental disaster.

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While there is strong public sentiment that legalizing marijuana would eliminate the market for marijuana cartels and the associated environmental and public-safety issues, Patterson argues that nothing is further from the truth.

“You’ll get a lot of pro-marijuana people who think if it gets legalized, all of this will just go away,” he said. “The Mexican nationals couldn’t want that more. If marijuana was decriminalized, what do we have on them? Trespassing. It would actually make it much more difficult to do anything about them doing this to the forest.”