Scenes of ‘Cartel’ Destruction
The only thing that has changed for Sgt. Nathaniel “Nate” Trujillo, the narcotics team leader for the Trinity County Sheriff’s Department, is that he won’t drink from local streams anymore. Trinity County is the overlooked sibling in the Emerald Triangle. With 13,500 residents, the fourth smallest of California’s 58 counties in population, it lacks Humboldt’s celebrated cannabis culture and its share of farms on private land. It isn’t close to San Francisco like Mendocino, with 87,000 residents and a lauded manufacturing and distribution center — the Flow Cannabis Institute — that helps local farmers into the regulated economy with packaging and brand marketing.
What Trinity County does have are the gorgeous public lands of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, including mystical wilderness areas such as the Trinity Alps, straddling the Trinity River and its tributary, the New River. Trujillo, who grew up in the region, won’t take a sip. He knows too well what is happening in the forests — environmental destruction, water diversion, garbage accumulation and pesticide dumping from suspected Mexican organized crime networks growing marijuana. In 2017, working with U.S. Forest Service agents, Trujillo raided a massive secluded cultivation, totaling 58,000 plants in decimated timberland.
What most cops call “cartel grows” have been flourishing on public lands for at least two decades. Their actual ties to drug cartels in Mexico are nebulous and hard to prove. At cultivation campsites, many adorned with figurines of Jesús Malverde, an early 1900s bandit who is revered as a patron saint of the narcotraficantes, authorities say many laborers are often unauthorized immigrants from Mexico, though there is no official record. Others are connected to drug traffickers in the Central Valley. The laborers’ continuing presence in forests, even growing lousy weed in limited light and with pesticides and rodenticides, underscores that legalization isn’t stopping the destructive public lands invasion.
“Maybe they only get a half a pound of weed per plant,” Trujillo tells me. “But what we found is they’re not just taking the bud. They’re taking the trim and the shake because that has value in low-end concentrates. They know there is money in every part of the plant.”
Trujillo has tracked money transfers to Mexico from people arrested at the grow sites. Narcotics officers have also chased harvested forest pot to valley communities in Sacramento, Modesto and Turlock, from where the product is then shipped out of state, often by gangs more renowned for heroin, coke and meth. Growing marijuana in the forests “is a cheap and easy sidekick for them,” Trujillo says. “There are no property taxes, and they can send a couple of guys up with supplies and set those [gardens] up with little overhead.”
With mostly isolated workers in the woods, not warring drug gangs bringing the narco-carnage of Mexico, authorities have reported only a few incidents of violence at the sites. But they’ve recovered numerous weapons and encountered armed people guarding cultivations. In 2010, sheriff’s deputies in Jackson County in southern Oregon shot and killed a 51-year-old man wielding a shotgun as they came upon a 10,000-plant garden on Bureau of Land Management property.
On August 28, federal prosecutors, the U.S. Forest Service, the California attorney general and 10 California county sheriffs announced that a continuing crackdown — called Operation Forest Watch — had destroyed 638,378 plants since October 1, 2017, from the Trinity Alps to the vast Sierra Nevada range to the east. Authorities seized 25,334 pounds of marijuana flower and 82 guns and arrested 77 people. Scott, the United States attorney in Sacramento, says the arrestees — “with one or two exceptions” — “were all ‘Mexican nationals.’” He said suspects, who have been interviewed, are “inevitably telling us they were brought up from Mexico for the growing season.”
In late September, a resident of Mexico, Gilberto Garcia-Garcia, 26, was indicted for cultivating 11,223 plants in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento said plants were dusted with powder believed to be a restricted pesticide, carbofuran, that is “highly toxic to both humans and wildlife.”
In a brazen 2016 case, authorities in the California gold country county of Calaveras in September arrested two undocumented women from Mexico, Guadalupe Sierra Arellano, 43, and Medarda Urbieta, 44, on kidnapping and human trafficking after narcotics officers eradicated 23,000 plants. They were alerted by four brothers who escaped and ran to a nearby house. The brothers claimed they had been picked up at a doughnut shop where day laborers are hired in the Central Valley town of Modesto. They were offered a landscaping job, but instead were allegedly enslaved in the garden in the Sierra foothills, beaten by male captors and threatened their family members would be killed if they left. An attorney for Arellano claimed the women, now facing trial, had no ties to Mexican cartels.
But McGregor says, “Mexican dominance in drug trafficking, irrespective of the drug, is stronger than ever today.” Buttressing his argument is a 2014 federal indictment of 13 California residents, most in Central Valley towns, on charges of conspiring with the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico to import and distribute methamphetamine and cocaine. Last July, the alleged kingpin for the California operation, Francisco Felix, 45, of the town of Mountain House in San Joaquin County, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for an operation that included cultivating marijuana on numerous properties in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties for distribution by the network.
And yet it is an exaggeration to blame Mexicans for all the illicit clear-cutting, grading, stream damming and pollution. In 2011, sheriffs’ departments from five counties destroyed 460,000 cannabis plants in the Mendocino National Forest in a massive deployment called Operation Full Court Press. Of 152 people arrested, 13 percent were unauthorized immigrants believed to be part of Mexican drug networks. In 2012, Mendocino sheriff Tom Allman told me the remainder were Caucasians from California and many other states working in the illicit cross-country cannabis trade.
In Oregon, United States Attorney Billy J. Williams announced indictments on August 29 against four Houston men and three Portland residents in “vast conspiracies” to send untold quantities of cannabis to Texas and Virginia. In another case, an Oregon man growing in the Hood River region was charged with trafficking to Florida. In Oregon federal enforcement actions since August 2017, Williams said, authorities recovered bundles of cash sent from other states. They seized $2.8 million, 546 pounds of marijuana, 51 guns, 26 vehicles, three houses and one yacht.
“These cases provide clear evidence of what I have repeatedly raised concerns over,” Williams asserted in a statement. “Oregon’s marijuana industry is attracting organized criminal networks looking to capitalize on the state’s relaxed regulatory environment.” He said his office was partnering with local agencies “to disrupt overproduction and the illegal exportation of marijuana out of state.”
In Mexico, Courageous Journalists Tell Story of Bloodshed Undiminished
For Inés García Ramos, a reporter for the Zeta, a Tijuana weekly newspaper acclaimed for courageous coverage of Mexican drug cartels, the scene in forested mountains above the Baja California town of Tecate was stunning in its criminal orderliness.
Amid the pines, the Sinaloa Cartel had constructed factories with giant stainless-steel cookers, pool-sized processing bins and horse troughs filled with paste for crystal meth. The August raid by the Mexican army recovered 73 tons of meth, estimated at $481 million in the United States. There were also two marijuana plantations — spanning close to 1,600 square meters each — with 90,000 plants.
“It was incredible,” says García, 29, who has seen plenty in over six years on the narco beat. “A huge complex in the middle of a forest, factories and plants, with everything perfectly arranged.”
For those in El Norte who think expanding marijuana legalization in the United States is sparing Mexico from corruption and bloodshed, Garcia has a quick answer: It’s not helping one bit. “I don’t think the drug organizations here have lost interest in marijuana at all,” García says. “The army told me that most of it is just going far away from California (and other legal states) to distribute in states where it is still illegal.”
In the offices of Zeta, editor Adela Navarro Bello says simply: “The violence continues in Mexico.” Drug crime in Mexico is at an all-time high, with more than 29,000 homicides in 2017 and 2018 expected to top 30,000. Tijuana street crime is soaring.
Yes, cannabis as a percentage of cartel exports has dropped significantly. According to U.S. Border Patrol reports, marijuana seizures fell from 2.4 million pounds in 2014 to 836,000 pounds last year and 491,500 pounds through August 2018. Yet, as weed still comes in, heroin seizures doubled between 2013 and 2017; meth has nearly tripled. Seizures of a deadly new opioid, fentanyl, are on pace to double this year over 2017.
If cannabis legalization were the only point of discussion, people could argue its benefits for Mexico. “It has certainly reduced the potential revenues of the Mexican cartels from marijuana,” says David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego “Justice in Mexico” research project. “To say it weakens cartels is a valid argument.” Yet Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, points to its 2010 research that estimated marijuana accounted for only 20 percent of drug cartel proceeds. Declining cannabis seizures only signal a continuing business transition. “I don’t think it’s just a reaction to marijuana legalization. These are profit-minded firms,” Kilmer says. “And if they see an opportunity, they are going to go for it.”
Few understand that more than journalists at Zeta, whose determined reporting on the drug trade dates to Zeta’s headline in 1985: “La Mafia Invade Baja California.” Zeta has paid to heavy toll since. In 1987, Héctor Félix Miranda — an investigative reporter dubbed “Felix the Cat” — was gunned down by a bodyguard for Tijuana businessman Hank Rhon, a future Tijuana mayor who denied ordering the hit. In 1997, after publishing photos of drug kingpin Ramón Arellano Félix and associates, co-founder Jesús Blancornelas, was severely wounded and his driver and bodyguard were killed in a fuselage of gunfire from Arellano Félix assassins.
In 2004, Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco, a Zeta editor and reporter, was shot to death in his car, with two small children watching from the backseat. An Arellano Félix cartel gunman was charged.
As many as 138 journalists have been killed in Mexico from 2000 through March 2018, according to the independent Mexican National Commission for Human Rights. “The assassinations haven’t stopped,” Navarro says. “They continue, motivated by corruption and a sense of impunity. They seek to silence the journalists who expose them.” But Zeta won’t quit, continuing with probing, magazine-length investigations. They are written from a house in an upscale Tijuana neighborhood with bulletproof glass, the Zeta sign and the paper’s ubiquitous slogan for an independent press — Libre como el viento, as free as the wind.
The story Zeta covers is getting worse. El Año Más Violento en BC — the Most Violent Year in Baja California — read a cover headline in late September, reporting that 782 murders in Tijuana by September 18 had broken the annual record in the city of 1.3 million people. Eighty percent of the killings were attributed to drug violence. In early August, Zeta’s lead headline was Tijuana, Estado Fallido — Tijuana, Failed State. “The morgue serves as a thermometer for cities,” García wrote in an editorial. “The bodies that arrive on stretchers reveal the deadliest of diseases: from criminal behaviors, violent tendencies and a crisis of security in a society.”
Shirk says bloodshed in Tijuana has surged in a deadly clash between established and emerging cartels, over a power vacuum created by the 2017 extradition to the United States of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the notorious Sinaloa Cartel drug lord known as “El Chapo.” Even after his arrest in 2014, a dramatic escape through a tunnel that cohorts carved into Mexico’s top security prison and his re-arrest in 2016, El Chapo remained the kingpin in charge. But his extradition has opened doors of criminal power for an “entirely new generation,” Shirk says. Now emerging is a supremely violent methamphetamine network, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — a former Sinaloa subset.
In Tijuana, the New Generation Cartel is now at war with both the Sinaloa and Arellano Félix organizations, which had previously run the city in distinct power centers. Another factor is now blamed for mounting violence. Beyond shipments to the United States, the cartels are maximizing profit by promoting drug sales to consumers in Mexico.
“The narcotraficantes started paying their members on the quantity that they could sell here, in addition to what goes to the United States,” says Navarro, 50, who joined Zeta in 1990 and became its director in 2006.
Reporter García, who insists “fear” isn’t a word she uses to describe her job, reports from Tijuana communities where drug violence is aflame over street dealing of crystal meth, followed by heroin, cocaine and, increasingly, fentanyl. Recently, she wrote about women entering the male-dominated trade, only to be gunned down over sales competition. “It is sad they are forced to do this to support their families — and the reason they died is that someone simply wanted their spot on the street,” she says.
In Tijuana street sales, marijuana is almost an afterthought. Sure, people still buy and consume Mexican weed. But García finds levity in the fact that the cannabis for well-to-do Mexicans is flowing south from California. While it is illegal to bring cannabis into Mexico, Mexican tourists confidently pick up flowers, edibles or vape pens at California adult-use dispensaries. Or friends and family come south, driving in undetected or striding past border guards with gifts of premium cannabis few Mexicans can afford. “It’s used by the upper class of the population,” García says. “Rich kids.”
For a time, the Sinaloa Cartel set out to challenge the cannabis market in the north by trafficking trimmed and packaged cannabis buds — not stereotypical ugly Mexican bricks. Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, points to the 2010 discovery of a 300-acre cannabis farm near Ensenada with sophisticated light-deprivation greenhouses and 134 tons of marijuana. At the time, Mexican cartels were burrowing tunnels into the United States to spirit in heavy loads.
These days, Clark says, there is still demand in some U.S. states “for cheap Mexican marijuana.” But a kilo of cannabis in Mexico (2.2 lbs) sells for $80 here, “and when you cross into the U.S., the increase isn’t that much.” What scares Clark now is cartels’ embrace of fentanyl. Zeta recently reported on “mega laboratories” discovered near Tecate and the coastal town of El Rosario. Clark says fentanyl, with pills made from raw materials from China or India, is worsening Tijuana’s rate of drug abuse, which he says affects as many as 200,000 residents.
As always, Zeta is on the story, even reporting on its continuing threats from the narcos. Navarro believes the work of journalists forces timid state officials to prosecute traffickers and corrupt associates, “making justice possible in this country.” In 2007, she received the “International Press Freedom” award from the Committee to Protect Journalists and in “Courage in Journalism” prize from the International Women’s Media Foundation.
“I will not live in fear,” Navarro says. “We are doing serious reporting with strict standards, and multiple sources required to publish. If I live in fear, that would affect the quality of our product. And I won’t do that. We’re going to continue. We’re not going away.”