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October 11-17, 2006

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South Bay raid

Photographs by Felipe Buitrago
South Bay raid: California's Campaign Against Marijuana Production (CAMP) is a multiagency task force that flies helicopters all over the state looking for pot groves and chops them down. They've found plenty of work in Santa Clara County over the last two decades.

Dark Green

If you smoke pot, there's a chance your bag of weed was produced by a murderous drug syndicate that pays poor immigrant laborers to camp out in the woods with guns and threaten hikers, shoot cops and foul the environment. Does that bring you down?

By Stett Holbrook

IF THERE was a television commercial for marijuana, you could imagine it featuring some good-looking adults passing a joint around a dinner table, laughing and having fun while a pro-pot celebrity like Woody Harrelson or Lenny Kravitz walked on with a knowing smile and made a pitch for smoking herb. "Pot. It's natural. It's organic. The way nature meant it to be. Have a toke and a smile."

Society no longer regards marijuana as the devil weed. While once reviled as a fast ticket to an underworld of crime and vice, the days of "reefer madness" have evolved into tolerance. In California, possession of under an ounce is a misdemeanor that carries a $100 fine. Since the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, people with medical conditions are relatively free to smoke, possess and grow pot as long as they have a doctor's note. For everyone else, it's still naughty, but much of society seems to regard pot as an entirely different drug than cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin.

Showtime's hit series Weeds, about a suburban mom who deals pot to make ends meet, is a further indication of how social mores have changed. There's no way the show would be as popular if it featured a lovable crack dealer. And then there's Willie Nelson, perhaps the country's best-known dope smoker and legalization advocate. He was recently cited for marijuana possession when Louisiana state police pulled over his tour bus and found a pound and a half of pot. Yet there have been no outcries for his incarceration or a campaign to melt down his records to protest his dope-smoking ways.

"I think people need to be educated to the fact that marijuana is not a drug," Nelson has been quoted as saying. "Marijuana is an herb and a flower. God put it here. If he put it here and he wants it to grow, what gives the government the right to say that God is wrong?"

Nelson is not alone is his live-and-let-live views on marijuana. After alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is the third most popular drug in America. According to government surveys, marijuana has been used by approximately 80 million people. Twenty million people smoked pot in the past year, and 11 million smoke it regularly.

It's just pot, right? What's the big deal?

The big deal is this: In spite of widespread social acceptance and evidence that smoking marijuana is less harmful than consuming alcohol or tobacco, pot has an ugly side that shatters its happy hippie image of an innocuous herb.

The reality many recreational smokers don't want to hear is that pot can be a dirty, bloody business. While there are countless backyard growers and small-scale pot farmers who stay clear of the nasty side of cultivation, the marijuana trade is increasingly controlled by Mexican drug trafficking organizations. That's especially true in California, the No. 1 pot-growing state. While once controlled by relatively benign hippie growers and opportunists in the "emerald triangle" in Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties, Mexican drug syndicates have muscled into the business over the past years, government authorities say, ratcheting up production and profits and well as violence to protect their crops.

"The same people who have been bringing you cocaine, meth and heroin are now bringing you marijuana," says Rich Camps, South Bay task force commander for the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. "They've added it to their portfolio."

And Santa Clara County is a big player in the illegal marijuana trade. Camps says many of Santa Clara County's pot gardens are linked to drug trafficking organizations in Michoacan, Mexico. These criminal syndicates act as a "command and control" structure for pot operations in the Silicon Valley, the Central Valley and Northern California, he says.

What's more, the growers who have set up shop in the state's wild lands are fouling the environment by piling trash, siphoning local creeks for irrigation and dumping pounds of fertilizer, pesticides and human waste into the water table and sensitive habitats.

"It's a serious pollution issue," says John Nores, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game.

Growing Awareness

It's not just law enforcement that decries black market pot.

From the other side of the aisle is Valerie Corral. She's co-founder of Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) in Santa Cruz. WAMM is a nonprofit collective that provides marijuana to the seriously ill. She's been arrested three times on marijuana charges and is an outspoken critic of current marijuana laws, but she too condemns the criminal underground that has turned pot into an organized-crime industry.

"I think people don't see the harm caused by the illicit market," she says. Just as purchasing petroleum products or a fast food can have negative social consequences, so does buying marijuana grown by drug traffickers, she says.

"I think the important thing is to observe our impacts as consumers," she says.

While there's not yet a fair trade, organic brand of marijuana for conscientious pot smokers, Corral urges like-minded people to educate themselves about what she sees as the value of legalized marijuana and to take a stand for better access to marijuana for those who need it.

Chop, chop

Chop, chop: With a month left to go in the 2006 season, CAMP had already set a new record with 1.6 million marijuana plants destroyed.

The New Green Gold Rush

There are different theories about why Mexican drug traffickers are now growing pot on California soil in such large quantities. Some say it's because clampdowns at the U.S./Mexican border have made smuggling the drug harder, making it more practical to grow it here. However, Camps believes law enforcement's efforts to shut down methamphetamine labs in California by restricting the sale of the chemicals needed to make the drug have left a criminal "workforce" without work. Growing weed has filled the void, he says.

"There's big money to be made in marijuana and that's why they're figuring it out," he says.

The infiltration of Mexican pot growers into California rural lands has ushered in an era of low-intensity warfare between the growers and law enforcement. California's Campaign Against Marijuana Production (CAMP) began in 1983. It's a multiagency task force that flies helicopters all over the state looking for pot groves and chops them down. Since its inception, plant seizures have gone up almost every year. Last year's eradication of 1.1 million plants was a new record, and with about a month left to go in the 2006 season, CAMP has already set a new record with 1.6 million plants.

Until three years ago, Santa Clara County was a good place to grow pot. Silicon Valley's eastern and western mountains provide ample water for irrigation and hundreds of miles of rugged, densely forested land to plant gardens and set up covert encampments. The risk of getting caught was low because local law enforcement wasn't trying to root out the gardens in a systematic way. But that's changed now.

The county sheriff's office received a state grant to create its first-ever marijuana eradication team (MET). The team is on the job all year long. During the spring-to-fall growing season, they fly over the hills in helicopters trying to spot gardens and hike across rugged terrain with topo maps and GPS devices in hand to sniff out illicit pot farms. During the winter months, they explore sites they may have missed and reconnoiter gardens they plan to hit during the next growing season.

Meet the Eradicators

While the marijuana eradication team is a two-man operation, it's really a collaborative effort. They work closely with the Department of Fish and Game and local park services because many pot gardens are on public land. The growers often seek out remote areas of public land to grow but have been known to plant marijuana within 50 yards of public hiking trails. For particularly large, hard-to-reach gardens, the county calls in CAMP to help eradicate the crops. The sheriff's office also gets help from Waste Management which disposes of confiscated marijuana for free.

In its first year, the eradication team pulled about 6,000 plants. Last year that number jumped to 80,307, putting Santa Clara County into the state's top 10 for total plants eradicated. This season isn't over yet, but the county has already topped last year's count with 122,607 plants. With each plant yielding as much as 1 pound of buds and a pound of pot going for approximately $5,000, that's more than $613 million worth of dope.

With that kind of money taken out of the hands of dealers, the MET deputies don't want their names revealed, as a precaution against retribution. Both are former patrol deputies and members of the sheriff's office SWAT team. One is a baby-faced deputy with a buzz cut and a quick smile. His partner is the more reserved of the two. He's an intense man with glasses, a thin build and a calculating stare.

As big as this year's haul has been, the shorthaired deputy says there's a lot they're not finding. He estimates they're missing 60 to 70 percent of the pot growing in the county. "It seems like it's wildly out of control," he says. "These guys will do it anywhere and spare no expense."

The deputies say they have no interest in raiding medicinal marijuana gardens. Under Proposition 215, medical marijuana patients or their caregivers are allowed to have six mature or 12 immature plants. As long as medicinal pot growers can provide a medical marijuana card, they leave the gardens alone, they say.

"We respect state law and respect the right of people to have medical marijuana," says the shorthaired deputy.

But with 23 raids of large-scale illegal gardens under their belts this year, these anti-pot commandos are more than a minor irritation to the illicit growers.

"It's getting more and more violent every year," says the bespectacled member of the eradication team. "I could use another five guys on my team and use them seven days a week. There's just so much [marijuana]."

Guns on Mt. Umunhum

On a recent foggy morning just before dawn, the scene in the parking lot of a Los Gatos church was enough to make an early-rising parishioner whisper a few Hail Marys and run for cover. Six men in camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vests stepped out of unmarked vehicles and began to unsheathe various semiautomatic weapons. The MET deputies and other deputies assigned to help them smeared on dark face paint and racked their rifles, chambering rounds with a series of metallic clacks and pops. After checking that their walkie-talkies and earpieces were all functioning, they clambered in the back of a pickup truck driven by a sheriff sergeant and drove up Reynolds Road, high above a slumbering Silicon Valley. At a pre-designated spot near Mt. Umunhum, the men jumped out and walked single file down a dirt trail and disappeared into the half-light of sunrise.

A few weeks earlier, one of the deputies flew over the area with a pilot in the Sheriff's Department's sole helicopter. Both deputies received training in aerial marijuana spotting in Mendocino County, the state's best outdoor classroom for learning such a skill. Banking over the rugged, steep terrain above the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve, the MET deputy saw a telltale patch of green that was much brighter and lighter than the manzanita, oak and chemise that forests the hillsides here. After flying over it a few times to confirm what he saw (but hopefully not close enough to arouse too much suspicion of anyone hiding out in the garden), he marked the site with his GPS device and added it to an ever-growing list of gardens he wanted to hit.

While a GPS certainly helps locate a "grow," as the deputies call pot gardens, two of the most reliable signs are decidedly more low-tech: foot trails and black irrigation pipe. Pot won't grow without water, and fortunately for growers, water is plentiful in the mountains that bookend Silicon Valley. The heavy rains this spring could be part of the reason for this year's bumper crop. Growers lug in miles of the plastic pipe and divert water from creeks and drainages to feed their thirsty crops. Find a black pipe snaking along the ground and follow it downhill and chances are good you'll find a garden. And where there are gardens, there are often gardeners.

Once at the grow, what they found was typical of these large-scale marijuana operations. The area around the garden was heaped with garbage and toxic waste. There was evidence of the growers' camp, including a dismantled tent, blankets, camping stove, empty fuel canisters, food wrappers, plastic water bottles and empty cans of food. Scattered throughout the camp were empty jugs and bags of fertilizer and pesticides. Nearby, the growers had dug two pits and lined them with heavy black plastic and piped in water from a nearby drainage to create a makeshift irrigation tank. The basins are often filled with fertilizer and other chemicals, creating a toxic soup that leeches into the ground and, potentially, back into creeks and groundwater supplies.

"Whatever makes it downstream or underground is toast," says Nores of the Department of Fish and Game.

As for the weed itself, about 1,000 chest-high plants were growing from individually dug holes. They were several weeks from budding, so rather than haul them out, the deputies simply clipped them with pruning shears and let them lie where they fell. Once cut, pot won't grow back.

In addition to the trash, the growers left something else that reminded the deputies of what they were up against each time they raided a pot garden: a gun holster and empty boxes of .357 caliber, hollow point rounds. Once they enter the body, the bullets are designed to splinter and cause maximum damage.

Your marijuana eradication dollars at work

Your marijuana eradication dollars at work: Last year, Santa Clara County was in the state's top 10 for total plants eradicated. This season isn't over yet, but the county has already topped last year's count with 122,607 plants—more than $613 million worth of dope.

The Ambush

Just a few miles away from this grow was the scene of a raid last year that didn't go as well. The MET deputies, two state Fish and Game wardens and other sheriff's office deputies were walking through a dense garden of marijuana when they were ambushed by two men hiding in the plants armed with AK-47s. Shots rang out and Fish and Game warden Kyle Kroll was struck by a bullet that went through both his legs. The deputies returned fire and hit one man. The other suspected pot grower escaped into the woods and was never found in spite of a huge manhunt. Kroll spent three hours waiting for an airlift. He's since recovered from his wounds. By the time a medical team arrived, the wounded suspect, an East Palo Alto man, was dead.

Camps, the task force commander with the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, said he later learned the suspect was part of the Michoacan-based drug trafficking organization that's involved in much of the South Bay's marijuana trade. The man's family never claimed his body.

While public land is preferred by growers, large tracts of private property are attractive as well, and properties don't get much larger than the Isabel Valley Ranch. Located about an hour east of Mt. Hamilton, the remote ranch is 11,500 acres of rolling hills and oak. It's just 18.5 miles from San Jose International Airport, but walking the ranch feels like being in the foothills of the Sierra. And as remote as the property is, the owners are furious to learn that pot growers have set up shop on their ranch.

"In some ways you're kind of held captive on your own property," says Lou Oneal, a former trial attorney. "You don't have full use it."

His son, Jim, spends a lot time hiking the property and is writing a book about the ranch. He's found Ohlone Indian artifacts and a silver spur left by what he believes was the De Anza party in the 18th century. He also spends a lot of time hiking and hunting with his 13-year-old son, but he has had to curtail his forays because of ominous-looking foot trails that cross the ranch. Alarmed by what he's seen, he called the sheriff's office to investigate.

He led the deputies to one of these trails and sure enough, after following it for about a mile, it led to a well-equipped campsite littered with trash that looked like it had been there for several years. Nearby was an old pot garden.

Oneal shook with rage as he surveyed the growers' camp.

"We've worked for 60 years to make this a pristine wildlife area," he said bitterly. "This just kills me."

Growers' Getaway

In spite of the Sheriff's Department's success in hacking down plants, arrests have been harder to come by. So far this year they've made just three.

Growers are hard to catch because they often hear the law coming. They live in the woods for weeks at a time and are well tuned in to their environment.

"They know every trail, every tree, every rock," says the shorthaired deputy.

Even when the deputies do manage to sneak up on the growers, they take off into the brush like jackrabbits. While the deputies are fatigued from arduous hikes and burdened with backpacks, bulletproof vests and weapons, the growers are fresh and ready run. But every once in a while they get lucky and grab a few suspects.

"We're not gardeners," says the shorthaired deputy. "Our job is to catch the bad guys."

That's why the sentencing of two men arrested in July was particularly sweet for the deputies and their partners in the Department of Fish and Game. The men, Saul Toledo and Luis Herrera, pleaded guilty to marijuana cultivation and two environmental charges: streambed diversion and water pollution. Toledo was also charged with the possession of a handgun and Herrera was hit with a parole violation. The men received two years in state prison.

The prosecution of the environmental charges was a first in the county and could establish a precedent for future cases, says sheriff's Sgt. Joe Waldherr, who supervises the marijuana eradication team.

Johnny Gogo is an assistant district attorney assigned to the eradication team. He admits Toledo and Herrera were probably just "worker bees" in a much larger organization. Getting suspects to reveal whom they're working for never happens, he says.

Legalize It?

Advocates for marijuana legalization say prohibition and profit drive the illegal market. Even though California has decriminalized possession of marijuana, it ensures illegal cultivation will flourish, says Corral, co-founder of the Santa Cruz medical marijuana cooperative.

"It helps proliferate the illegal market," she says. "We don't look at the far-reaching impact."

Dale Gieringer, California coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), believes that only when growing marijuana is legal will the violence and nefarious nature of the illegal drug trade stop. What's more, he says a state-controlled marijuana industry could rake in huge sums of money through taxation.

"This is a multibillion industry that's being lost to the state through criminality."

But until the laws change, the war against the growers has to continue, he says.

"As long as you have this dumb game of prohibition, [law enforcement] doesn't have much choice."

For his part, the shorthaired deputy with the marijuana eradication team doesn't lose sleep over the legalization debate or the efficacy of what he does. His job to enforce the law and growing pot is illegal.

"If it wasn't a felony tomorrow, we'd find something else to do," he says.

Until then, he's got more gardens to root out before the rains come and this year's pot season comes to an end.

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