COVELO, Calif. — Mexican drug cartels are muscling in on America's burgeoning multi-billion-dollar marijuana industry, illegally growing large crops in the hills and valleys of Northern California.
The state legalized marijuana in 2016 for adult recreational use, yet the black market continues to thrive with thousands of illegal grows. Criminal syndicates, in turn, are cashing in across the U.S. on the "green gold rush."
They're undercutting prices of legalized products offered by permitted farmers who follow the rulegs and pay taxes.
And they're exploiting workers, robbing and shooting adversaries, poisoning wildlife and poaching water in a state fighting widespread drought and devastating wildfires.
Lured by America's push toward legalized cannabis, cartels have abandoned many decades-old marijuana farms in Mexico, moving their operations to Northern California where they can blend in seamlessly alongside legitimate grows, said Mike Sena, executive director of Northern California's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task forces.
"Why try to bring that bulk marijuana into the United States, when you can just grow it in the United States in remote locations like Mendocino County and then move it across the entire country?"
Major cartels, including the top powerhouses — Sinaloa and Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación or CJNG — also continue trafficking billions of dollars of heroin, meth and opioids into the U.S. and countries worldwide.
They're flooding the streets with fentanyl, often pressed into pills to mimic prescription medicine, fueling skyrocketing overdoses that killed more than 100,000 people during the pandemic. The cartels and their drugs also have infiltrated Kentucky, where overdose deaths rose 49% in 2020, killing nearly 2,000 people.
Americans' growing embrace of marijuana has given the cartels an avenue to expand their reach, employing the same vicious tactics they use to push out competitors in the illicit opioid trade.
John Haschak, a member of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, said the county has issued about 1,100 permits for cannabis cultivation.
Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall told The Courier Journal there are as many as 10,000 illegal grows in his jurisdiction, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco. He tries to target the worst 100, which is all his small force can handle in a year.
"I'm fighting a dragon with a needle," Kendall said.
Marijuana farming in the ‘Emerald Triangle’
Kendall's county of 91,000 residents forms the base of California's famed "Emerald Triangle," topped by Humboldt and Trinity counties, a remote region where marijuana growers far outnumber police.
In Mendocino County, just 21 deputies patrol a jurisdiction that stretches over 3,506 square miles, from ocean-side cliffs on its western border to the Mendocino National Forest on the east.
The area is double the geographic footprint of Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, Chicago and Denver combined.
Because of the twisty terrain, It can take sheriff's deputies up to an hour to reach the site of an emergency or crime.
"We have international cartels successfully operating here" setting up multi-million dollar farm operations, said California Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, a former highway patrolman.
"They’re poisoning our ground and stealing our water, and we have drought out here," he said.
Headless bodies and murder victims
The sheriff said he doesn't have enough deputies to safely serve a search warrant amid increasing violence.
A glimpse at what he's dealing with: Christopher Wayne Gamble, who allegedly operated large illegal crops near the town of Willits, in central Mendocino County, is charged with murdering a 17-year-old boy and his father who came from Mexico seeking work, according to Mendocino County Superior Court records.
On a second property Gamble owns, detectives found the victims' headless bodies in April in a ditch under a pile of tires that had been set on fire.
"It’s a punishment to the person who stepped out of line," the sheriff said. "And a message to the next person: 'Don’t step out of line.'"
In October, a Fish and Wildlife warden stumbled onto a decomposing body stuffed in the trunk of a vehicle parked along the roadside near Covelo, in the northern part of the county.
During a drive-by shooting last year, one man was shot in the ear and another in the head in Covelo.
And in July, a 27-year-old man was fatally shot in the Laytonville area, southwest of Covelo.
All, according to the sheriff and court records, are linked to illegal cannabis grows.
"We're a very short amount of time away from having heads in the square like they do down in Mexico," Kendall said.
Number of missing people grows
Every year, backpackers from the U.S. and beyond seek adventure and farm work, boarding buses bound for the Emerald Triangle.
They join men and women who travel from Mexico looking to make money to send back to their families. Some never make it home.
"It’s the Wild West," said Sena, who is based in San Francisco and oversees 22 federally funded drug task forces throughout Northern California. "We’ve got people in gunfights on a regular basis over marijuana.
"And, the number of missing people is insane," especially in the Emerald Triangle. "During grow season, people call the sheriffs' offices up there looking for loved ones who may never be found."
The Courier Journal spent a week in the valley town of Covelo and throughout Mendocino County, touring cattle ranches, permitted marijuana farms and a licensed dispensary and talking with conservationists, lawmakers, teachers, police and fire officials and tribal members.
Some gave differing opinions about marijuana and laws governing its crops, but all agreed that crime and related problems have only worsened with legalization.
The newspaper investigation found:
Illegal growers are using dangerous chemicals from Mexico that poison animals and contaminate soil.
Armed criminal networks set up illegal grows on federal land in national forests.
Illegal cannabis used to make a nearly pure form of THC is linked to explosions that have burned children and killed adults.
Some veteran lawmen surprisingly approve of legalizing marijuana federally as a way to cripple the black market.
Cash-only industry a ripe target
Illegal growers can camouflage their grows in plain sight near permitted grows, forcing police and code enforcement to research which crops are legal or in the midst of the permit process.
Even if a grow isn't legal, it's only a misdemeanor crime in California — regardless of the size of the crop.
Typically, investigators must prove environmental damage occurred or someone was stabbed or shot to elevated the crime to a felony.
And though more than 30 states legalized marijuana for medicinal use and 18 allow adult recreational use, marijuana remains a schedule 1 drug in the U.S., making it illegal federally.
Accordingly, banks typically won't issue credit cards or provide banking services to permitted marijuana businesses. That renders it a cash-only industry, ripe for robbers.
For the past few years, U.S. lawmakers have voted down controversial measures to open up banking services to legitimate cannabis-related businesses.
And, marijuana's classification as an illegal drug means farmers and dispensaries in California are barred from exporting it to other states. Adult tourists can legally buy marijuana joints, edibles and other cannabis products, but they can't carry them over state lines.
That hands organized criminals a ready-made customer base. They move their cannabis by train, plane and car to states where it's not legal. Investigators say even some California residents buy it illegally because it's cheaper.
John Burkes, Mendocino County's Code Enforcement supervisor, said he uses flyover photography and Google Earth satellite imagery to hunt for illegal crops, sometimes hidden among the tree canopy. He estimates the county's known illegal grows cover roughly 300 acres.
His department also receives tips about questionable crops and greenhouses from neighbors, logging about 600 complaints this year as of mid-November, double the complaints from the year before.
Permitted farmers are at a disadvantage, said Swami Chaitanya of Swami Select farms, a self-described hippie and "legacy farmer," meaning he harvested the crop before it was legal in a wooded area north of Laytonville.
He and his partner, Nikki Lastreto, run a small farm producing up to 400 pounds annually. They have spent more than $200,000 during the past five years and still haven't completed the complicated permitting process.
They've had to submit maps and photos and pay for surveys and inspections from state and county agencies monitoring food and agriculture, fish and wildlife, water quality and more.
"We want to be the Bordeaux or Champagne of cannabis, and we are," Chaitanya said of their small-batch, craft cannabis, "if they don't kill us" with taxes and fees.
‘The whole process has failed’
Customers who buy from licensed dispensaries know the product has been tested to be free of dangerous chemicals and to reflect the ingredients and potency listed on the label.
The trade-off is they have to pay cannabis consumption and dispensary taxes.
California's Department of Cannabis Control has been instructed to facilitate the permitting process. There are more than 8,400 cultivation licensees scattered across the state, according to department data.
But each county has the option to ban cannabis. Currently, 68% of local jurisdictions in California ban cannabis retail, according to the department, and 62% ban all cannabis activity.
Local jurisdictions also can establish additional requirements and taxes, which Mendocino officials have done.
Chaitanya, whose product is sold in 15 dispensaries, estimates that more than 100 area growers near his north Mendocino County farm aren't permitted and "they're kind of looking at us like we're stupid."
Farmers once fetched up to $4,000 per pound, but a saturated market across the state has driven down prices to $400 or less. Illegal sellers can ship it to get triple the price on the East Coast, Sena said.
"The whole process has failed," said Katie Delbar, a sixth-generation rancher in Mendocino County. "It has failed the growers who are trying to do it right, and it's failed the community."
Delbar, whose family runs a cattle ranch in the town of Potter Valley, is concerned about growing violence, piles of garbage left beside streams and abandoned greenhouses, called "hoop houses," left to deteriorate after growers leave.
"There's not enough policeman, sheriffs, code enforcement agents to make sure the people who are growing are permitted," she said during a ride on a four-wheeler to check on a herd.
Delbar said a Realtor and two men came to her farming community and offered residents $400,000 to $500,000 cash upfront to lease property for one year, promising $1 million or more at the end of the 12 months.
However, the agreement required property owners to stay off their own land for the entire year.
"Any ponds, any waste and environmental damage is the owner’s responsibility," she said.
Near her family's Potter Valley ranch, Dave Najera, a former U.S. Marine, co-owns a cannabis business on land that was once a vineyard.
"We were doing it before it was legal," said Najera, who touted the plants' potential benefits for anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder.
His business, licensed as Mendo Select, legally operates 10 greenhouses.
"There are a lot more guidelines, a lot more hoops to jump through, but you sleep better at night," he said. "It’s nice to know you aren’t going to lose your freedom."
Najera said government fees and taxes are a bigger threat to his business than illegal growers.
"They're going to most likely cripple the small farmers," he said.
There aren't too many small farmers left in Covelo, a town of modest homes in northern Mendocino that has become a marijuana hot spot.
The valley town boasts a stunning panoramic view of the mountains and its borders include the Round Valley Indian Reservation, more than 2,000 enrolled members of seven tribes: Yuki, Pit River, Little Lake, Nomlacki, Concow, Pomo and Wailacki.
Covelo is accessible by a narrow road that snakes upward for several miles overlooking a drop-off. Growers tucked away in these hills have a birds-eye view when patrol cars or strangers are coming their way.
How to buy marijuana legally
Adult residents and tourists can legally buy cannabis from authorized dispensaries in California and other states where recreational use is legal. In California, you must be age 21 or older for recreational use and age 18 or older with a physician’s recommendation for medicinal use.
Be prepared to show identification and pay in cash. Since it’s illegal federally, federal-regulated banks can’t authorize credit card purchases.
It’s advisable to check the laws and regulations in the city and state you plan to visit ahead of time. The California Department of Cannabis Control’s website offers a detailed list of what is allowed and what is prohibited. California also offers a database of dispensaries, searchable by zip code or county.
What to avoid
Even in states such as California, where recreational cannabis is legal, lawmakers in counties and cities can ban the cultivation, selling, buying and consumption in their jurisdictions. And in locations where cannabis is allowed, often its use is banned in public areas, in restaurants and hotels.
Tourists must consume the cannabis before leaving the state where it was purchased since it’s illegal to carry across state lines. It’s also illegal to order it online and ship it to another state.
The rise of million-dollar properties
The sheriff is a sixth-generation Covelo native with a daughter who is half Native American and has relatives on the reservation.
During a recent drive through the town, he donned a tan cowboy hat and drove an unmarked white pickup and spat Copenhagen into a black Yeti while pointing out signs that the town he loves is under siege.
He drove by illegal grows on and off the reservation hidden behind fences 6-feet or taller and guarded with security cameras, pit bulls and other dogs. Some posted multiple signs cautioning: "Keep out."
And there are several dump sites with abandoned cars and piles of trash, including one near an archaeological site with arrowheads, the sheriff said.
The center of town is a small strip that includes a gas station, a clothing boutique, a grocery store and several other businesses. Fliers on a billboard advertise several properties for sale, including ones listing for $1-3 million.
The sheriff said he's concerned about buyers who paid double the land's value — in cash.
A decade ago, 20 acres with a house and barn would have sold for $200,000 or less. Now, it can fetch more than $1 million.
"Almost everybody that grows dope up here is from San Jose," Kendall said. "That’s a hub," where some Mexican cartels position their regional supervisors.
After doing flyovers, sheriff's investigators estimate there are a million pot plants on the valley floor, an area about seven by eight miles. That's less than 2% of the county's landmass.
The sheriff estimates that 95% are illegal. If tribal officials ask him to shut one down on their portion of the valley floor, his deputies go in with a tractor and machetes.
Ronnie Hostler, 79, of the Nomlacki tribe, said he doesn't approve of cannabis, but other tribal members support it.
He sits on the front porch of his small home watching his neighbors' grazing cattle and avoiding the back of his house and the view of migrant workers farming marijuana.
Hostler said he was offered a $5,000 cash down payment and promised $10,000 at the end of grow season to allow greenhouses in his front yard. He declined.
The valley is known as "nature's hideaway," carved into a town sign.
"It's not that anymore," Hostler said. "The beauty is gone."
Over time, several tribal members sold their land or leased it. Now the reservation resembles a "checkerboard," with about half the reservation consisting of non-Native Americans, said Joel Merrifield, a member of the tribal council.
Merrifield, who is in recovery and works with youths at the Round Valley Indian Health Center, said he believes marijuana should only be used medicinally, such as for relief of pain from cancer. He said he smoked marijuana years ago and it was his gateway to other drugs.
"It's being abused" on the reservation, he said while standing in front of the center, within view of a marijuana grow across the street. "I've voiced that many times in (tribal council) meetings."
The councilman said he also is concerned about shootings and disappearances.
"This ain't Mexico City, but it's happening here," he said. "It is alarming our elders, 80-years-old and up, who don't feel safe here."
Living in ‘squalor’
Customers across the U.S. who buy marijuana on the internet likely don't realize the labor and sex trafficking they could be financially supporting, police said.
"Some of the marijuana being moved across the country is born on the back of slave labor,” said Sena, who also heads up the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center. "Often the people brought in to do labor are mistreated" on illegal marijuana farms.
In Mendocino County, someone dropped off a frightened 16-year-old girl from Mexico who didn't know where she was and didn't speak English at an illegal cannabis farm in Covelo months ago. The sheriff fears she was brought in to have sex with the workers, but his deputies found her first.
Other farm workers, including young men used for sex and labor trafficking, weren't rescued in time. Some were forced to live in squalor without plumbing. Others ended up dead and many are missing, the sheriff said.
"We have families who will never be able to know what happened to their children," Kendall said. "I’m not going to put up with it."
Harming national forest land, wildlife
Armed illegal growers are also setting up operations on federal land in national forests.
Investigators have found "trespass grows" in 72 national forests in 21 states, that includes all of California's 18 national forests, said Mourad Gabriel, a regional wildlife ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service who is based in the Emerald Triangle.
An average of more than 2 million cannabis plants were eradicated on federal land from 2007-2019 — more than a million of which was grown in California, Gabriel said.
He's concerned about the unknown impact of dangerous chemicals, including ones used to kill rodents that are banned in the U.S. and have been used at some grow sites, including in the Mendocino National Forest.
"They’re definitely smuggled in from Mexico," he said.
Gabriel worries about soil contamination and tainted streams which supply the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Covelo.
"They definitely are at risk if contamination is to occur," he said.
The scientist said in 2014 someone poisoned his beloved rescue dog Nyxo, who suffered an agonizing death. Gabriel believes it was a scare tactic to stop his research.
Gabriel helped connect illegal grows to the poisoning or shooting of spotted owls, fishers, bear, deer and hawks.
Growers at illegal sites sometimes cut down trees and also leave piles of trash and human waste near streams in the forests.
"They're toxic waste sites," said California Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Democrat whose district includes the Emerald Triangle.
"They're damaging the water and damaging wildlife, and it's at a pretty large scale."
In fiscal year 2019, more than 353,000 marijuana plants were eradicated from national forests in California and across the country, and officials confiscated $948 million dollars worth of marijuana, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Jamie Hinrichs.
In recent years, officials found large grows on national forests in California, Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
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Burns and death linked to illegal cannabis
Burns and explosions are another threat with illegal cannabis.
A 56-year-old man illegally making a form of pure THC in September caused an explosion in Mendocino County that killed him and burned his two grandchildren.
Firefighters and three air ambulances rushed to the overnight trailer park in the town of Ukiah, the county seat.
"I found three burn victims running around trying to find water" screaming and crying, said Justin Buckingham, a battalion chief with the Ukiah Valley Fire Authority.
Investigators say the man was making butane honey oil, a golden liquid extracted from the cannabis stem, seeds and leaves using the same highly flammable gas found in grill lighters.
The finished product, syrupy like honey, can contain nearly pure THC. A kilo of the wax, formed when the extract solidifies, has a street value of up to $39,000, Sena said.
Drug users can heat, vaporize and inhale the wax, a trend called "dabbing," which has sent patients to emergency rooms with symptoms similar to pneumonia, according to case studies, including one published in July in the National Library of Medicine.
Doctors caution the long-term health effects aren't known.
Most of these labs are illegal, police said. There are several steps to get a permit, including having a ventilation system, avoiding heat sources and recycling the wastes.
The Ukiah explosion, which blew out the windows, caused 2nd- and 3rd-degree burns to a 12-year-old boy's arms and legs, said Lt. Andy Phillips, with the Ukiah Police Department.
An 8-year-old girl suffered 1st- and 2nd-degree burns.
The grandfather died several days later.
There have been several similar explosions over the past few years, but none were fatal, the lieutenant said.
What can be done?
Veteran lawmen, including Sena and the Mendocino County sheriff, now favor allowing marijuana federally as a way to cripple the illegal market.
Results of a new Gallup poll released in November show 68 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana federally, a record high.
However, repeated attempts by U.S. lawmakers to legalize it have failed. In November, Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina introduced a bill to federally decriminalize marijuana, allowing states to regulate the drug similarly to alcohol.
In California, lawmakers announced in September $1.5 million to target the biggest illegal growers in Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties. The Emerald Counties previously got $1.5 million to help clean up the toxic wastes left behind on illegal grow sites, Wood said.
Kendall said federal prosecution of criminal drug networks in his area are rare, and he needs more help from agents.
DEA San Francisco officials declined to comment, but the FBI released a statement saying its officials collaborate with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office "on ongoing investigations and share intelligence on criminal threats."
Sena agreed Mendocino County needs more resources, but said undercover work is difficult because area growers recognize cars and faces that are new to the remote area.
He also said the focus is more on the immediate threat of fentanyl, America's No. 1 killer.
"Until this gets elevated to the point where people can actually make the connection between the violence that we're seeing on the streets of America and the illicit flow of marijuana, we're not going to be able to get the funding, the personnel, the right resources."
Reporter Beth Warren: email@example.com; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Mexican drug cartels move in on California's shadow marijuana industry