Pot shots leave two dead

Every year around this time, police and potheads alike turn their attention toward the upcoming marijuana harvest, albeit for very different reasons. But the harvest wars turned deadly in Butte County last week as three sheriff’s deputies fatally shot two armed men during a raid of a huge marijuana grow in the Feather Falls area. The two dead men are thought to be Mexican nationals, possibly working as crop guards for a Mexican drug cartel. Another suspect was brought into custody unharmed.

The official report on the shooting is not yet available, but initial reports from the field indicate that the three officers involved in the shooting were likely acting in self-defense, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said Monday.

Ramsey said the deputies, part of a massive inter-agency raid involving as many as 50 officers, encountered three men who had been camping near a marijuana field located on partially cleared land belonging to Sierra Pacific Industries. The area had been under surveillance for a few weeks before the raid.

The shooting occurred around 7:15 a.m. on Sept. 19, as members of the sheriff’s Special Incident Response Team surprised the three suspects at their camp. Seeing that the men were armed, deputies tackled one suspect who was said to be toting an AK-47 rifle. That suspect was unable to draw the weapon because it was slung over his shoulder underneath a sleeping bag and some clothes, Ramsey said.

When two other suspects, one armed with an AK-47 and the other with a .38-caliber revolver, were ordered—in English and Spanish—to drop their weapons, the man with the rifle assumed a threatening posture, leveling the rifle at the officers. The officers, who at that point were “barrel to barrel” with the suspects, in Ramsey’s words, opened fire with at least one semi-automatic machine pistol, killing both suspects.

Police took the surviving suspect, Valentine Guizar Mora, 24, into custody and hauled out some 11,000 nearly mature marijuana plants. The crop was so large it had to be baled into cargo netting and lifted out by helicopter.

The violence here in Butte County follows a similar incident in Shasta County, where police shot two men at an even larger growing operation near Shingletown. The pot raids are part of the 20-year-old Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) project run by the state attorney general and involving officers from a slew of local, state and federal agencies. When CAMP began in 1983, it targeted mostly smaller, mom-and-pop-style grows in the so-called “emerald triangle” coastal region of Northern California.

In recent years however, it has become common for members of Mexican drug cartels to plant large crops in remote areas, leaving a few sentries—often heavily armed—to tend the garden and guard against intruders. Two years ago, a Hmong man out hunting squirrels in a forested part of Butte County was killed near a marijuana field. Police later found evidence linking the crime to a cartel they believe had been active in the area.

CAMP estimates that 74 percent of large, outdoor growing operations are run by Mexican nationals. Anti-drug-war activists have repeatedly claimed that programs such as CAMP are themselves to blame for the involvement of foreign cartels, as they have driven smaller, native growers out of business, making it less risky and more profitable for foreign growers.