San Gabriel Valley Tribune


San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Article Published: Sunday, September 14, 2003

ARTICLES IN THIS SECTION

9/14/2003
- Under Siege
- Cartels growing pot in forest
- Forest at crossoads over public use
- Lake not so crystal
- Fire threat still high, officials say
- Facing Extinction
9/15/2003
- Masses and Messes
- A foul problem: garbage
- Groups spread blame for forest damage
- Forest dwellers have created their share of problems
9/16/2003
- 'Static' budget hinders forest
- Bad roads hinder vistor, fire vehicle access
- Adventure Pass raises funds, eyebrows
9/17/2003
- Saving the forest a tall task

SPECIAL REPORT: ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST

Cartels growing pot in forest

By Gene Maddaus and Marshall Allen

In the past 10 years, marijuana gardens in national forests have gotten bigger, more profitable and more dangerous. The Forest Service seized 421,000 plants on federal lands in California last year, a tenfold increase from a decade ago. Much of the crop is concentrated in southern forests, closer to the Mexican border. In 2000, 80,000 plants were removed from the Angeles National Forest, a record. Much of the pot is becoming more potent and thus more profitable.

The nature of the growers is changing as well, from peace-loving ex-hippies to armed foot soldiers of Mexican drug cartels. The authorities have responded to the dramatic expansion and transformation of marijuana growth in national forests with new partnerships and initiatives, but without added manpower. In the Angeles National Forest, seven sworn Forest Service officers patrol the forest, half as many officers as a decade ago.

"It's becoming much more violent out there," said Dan Bauer, the national program coordinator for counter-drug operations at U.S. Forest Service headquarters outside Washington.

Hikers and backpackers face a threat if they stumble into a marijuana garden. No one has been hurt recently in the Angeles National Forest, but in 2001, a father and son who were hunting in the Eldorado National Forest near Lake Tahoe were shot and wounded by marijuana growers.

The growers are trained to defend the crop from "patch pirates" who steal marijuana just as it's about to be harvested, said Jerry Moore, the Forest Service's special agent in charge of California forests. Almost all growers are armed.

"It's quite terrifying for people," said forest service spokesman Matt Mathes. "They're out hiking, enjoying nature and all of a sudden people are pointing guns at them ..."

Marijuana has been grown along the Angeles Crest Highway from the Pines picnic area to Monte Cristo campground. It's often grown near the Red Box and Rincon ranger stations, as well as between the Cooper Canyon and Buckhorn campgrounds, said Patrol Commander Rita Wears, who oversees officers in the Southern California forests.

"Wherever there is water there's an opportunity to find it," she said.

Mexican cartels have focused on U.S. forest lands in part because drug enforcement is getting better in Mexico, and in part because the border is getting tighter. An increase in Border Patrol agents, especially since Sept. 11, 2001, has made it more difficult to smuggle marijuana into the country, Bauer said. A change in asset forfeiture laws, which makes it much more likely that a grower's home and effects will be seized if a garden is discovered in his back yard, also has made it more attractive to grow on public lands.

Marijuana gardens tend to pollute pristine wilderness areas. Growers haul up gallons of herbicide to clear an area for a marijuana patch. They often use fertilizer and insecticide. They can divert streams or lay miles of PVC piping and hose to irrigate the crop. When they abandon their camps after the harvest, growers leave behind a mess of trash and human waste. Winter rains wash much of it into streams.

Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt. James Whitten described the growers as "sophisticated horticulturists" who have improved their methods in recent years to produce a more potent, convenient and valuable crop.

Authorities said they're seeing more "sinsemilla " marijuana --pot made from a female plant's buds, which possess the highest levels of THC -- the chemical that leads to a high.

Whole plant marijuana, which is usually imported from Mexico, has a THC level between 5 and 6 percent, and a street value of about $500 a pound, Whitten said. Sinsemilla can have THC levels between 12 and 30 percent, and be valued between $2,000 and $6,000 a pound, he said. Because only the buds are harvested to make sinsemilla, the plants are left behind. A harvest of thousands of plants can be carried out of the forest in several backpacks.

Growers tend to find the most remote areas possible, and sometimes try to grow their crop beneath a canopy of foliage to avoid detection from the air. Technology firms began to develop radar equipment in the 1980s that could detect marijuana from the air. But despite some successes in early trials, the use of such equipment is not widespread.

"It's not quite there yet," Bauer said. "Right now the most effective method we have is the human eyeball."

In the Angeles National Forest, one 5,000-plant dope garden was so close to Big Tujunga Canyon Road that a person could sit among the plants and watch cars drive by, Wears said. Growers sometimes try to blend in with members of the public. Marijuana crops are often planted near campgrounds, where growers live and pretend to be ordinary campers or hunters, Wears said.

"We've validated the deer tags of guys we later arrested for growing dope," she said.

Though they have pulled up more than 400,000 plants in California in each of the past three years, officers guess that many more go undetected. Moore guessed about 30 percent of the total crop is seized each year.

With just shy of 200 agents in California, the U.S. Forest Service is the primary law enforcement entity on forest lands. They patrol 31,000 square miles of forest -- one officer per 156 square miles. Even in the relatively urban Angeles National Forest, it can take hours for officers to respond to 9-1-1 calls. The agency gets substantial help from local sheriff's departments. But many counties are so small and have so much else to worry about they cannot provide much assistance.

The Forest Service has signed cooperative agreements with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. The DEA provides some funding but no manpower, Whitten said. Bauer said the DEA likes to target harder drugs, such as cocaine.

"It is tough, even within some of our management levels, to convince people that marijuana is a dangerous drug," Bauer said. "A lot of DEA agents say 'It's just kiddie dope.' "

The local agency chiefly responsible for targeting major drug cartels is the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The organization goes after upper-echelon figures in the cartels, and draws on a broad-based partnership of 60 local police agencies, four state agencies and eight federal agencies, including the DEA, the U.S. Customs Service, and the FBI. The Forest Service is not a member.

"We don't have a seat at the table," said Gil Quintana, the Forest Service's deputy special agent in charge of California forests.

Cooperation is limited between the Forest Service and the Los Angeles HIDTA. HIDTA Director Roger Bass said the organization doesn't do much work in the forest.

Bauer and others are involved in lobbying Congress for more funding and more partnerships to take on the growing marijuana problem.

With such limited manpower, marijuana enforcement tends to amount to little more than eradication. The authorities have to be satisfied with pulling the plants and denying the cartel's profits, Whitten said. Sometimes there's just so much marijuana and so few resources to deal with it that the authorities can't even destroy all the plants they know about.

It is far more difficult to make an arrest, and essentially impossible to go after higher-ups within the cartels. After baby-sitting the crop for several months, growers tend to know the rugged terrain better than the authorities and have an easy time getting away. If they are caught, they aren't that helpful.

"The problem with the growers is that most of the people out there don't have any idea who they're working for," Bauer said.

The two arrests last summer were the only two related to marijuana in the Angeles National Forest for the entire year, Wears said. Herrera and Martinez, both Mexican citizens, have not led authorities to their accomplices. They both pleaded guilty earlier this year and prosecutors are asking for 10-year sentences.

"We don't have any information to suggest it's connected with anything larger," Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Lesser said. "It may or may not be."

The arrests haven't made a dent in production. Officials are on pace to seize even more marijuana plants this year than they did last year.

"There's always new souls coming up," Whitten said.


-- Gene Maddaus can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4444, or by e-mail at gene.maddaus@sgvn.com. Marshall Allen can be reached at Ext. 4461 or by e-mail at marshall.allen@sgvn.com.

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