Local, state and federal law enforcement agents raided three large marijuana plantations Monday on federal and state land near the South Fork Yuba River - encampments most likely operated by a Mexican drug cartel, officials said.
Early in the morning, officers hiked into the first two plantations about two miles from the Independence Trail trailhead north of Nevada City, with about a half-mile of the hike straight uphill, officers said.
A commercial helicopter pilot participating in the raid spotted a third garden - close to a private air strip on Milhous Drive - several hours after the initial raid, Nevada County Sheriff's Lt. Bill Evans said.
"The entire canyon is littered with gardens," Evans said.
The first two plantations together yielded 9,201 plants, he said, watered by an elaborate irrigation system.
When the pilot spotted the third garden, officers were called back in and flown to the spot, where they used chain saws to cut away brush for a landing zone.
There, officers found another 2,428 bushes, Evans said.
"That's 11,629 plants today," Evans said. "Add that to the 23,000 plants from the last couple of (raids), and you've got a substantial amount."
The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates a plantation's value at $1,000 per plant, Evans said. But many bushes gathered Monday appeared mid-sized and had not reached full maturity, California's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting officials said. Many plants hadn't produced buds yet, the helicopter pilot said. And only female plants produce the valuable buds.
Officers found fresh footprints in the mud, but no suspects were located, Evans said at 6:30 a.m. Monday after the first two plantations had been raided.
Officers from the sheriff's office, the Bureau of Land Management, California State Parks, the Grass Valley Police Department, the Nevada City Police Department and CAMP participated in the bust. The plantations all were close to the Independence Trail, a popular hiking path near the river.
The Hughes 500 helicopter, on contract with CAMP from PJ Helicopters in Red Bluff, hauled several loads of hacked marijuana bushes to a 10-ton dump truck waiting at the air strip. The plants will be disposed of at a confidential location, Evans said.
Investigators found "hooches," or small camps with food, at each garden, Evans said.
Officers found no weapons in the first two encampments but found a .22-caliber rifle and pistol ammunition at the third garden, Evans said.
Implied link to
Monday's raid was the third bust of an operation linked to Mexican cartels in the area within a month, officials said. On July 13 and July 19, law enforcement raided gardens on federal and state land, also along the South Fork Yuba River near the Independence Trail. At one of those, officers arrested three Mexican nationals who allegedly had been guarding the plantation.
Evans said the installations' remote locations and elaborate watering systems implied drug cartel investment in all of the plantations.
"Since Prop. 215, (Californians) don't need to hide their gardens," Evans said. Proposition 215, passed by California voters in 1996, allows people with a doctor's written recommendation to legally grow a limited amount of marijuana for medicinal use.
"These days, if it's out in the woods, its a Mexican grow," Evans said.
Mexican drug cartels increasingly have been planting marijuana in remote areas of California, typically guarded by Mexican nationals who may have been pressed into service against their will. Traffickers then use profits from pot sales to finance large methamphetamine laboratories in Mexico and the United States, many in Southern California, Evans said.
The cartel traditionally assigns a "garden boss" to each marijuana operation, Evans said. The garden boss does not staff the plantation himself but manages it from Mexico and sends people out on foot to scout the area before planting begins.
Several plantations have been linked by evidence, such as cell phones found at the sites, Evans said.
The Mexican citizens arrested during the July 13 raid remain jailed at Wayne Brown Correctional Facility in Nevada City.
Because the July 13 bust was on California State Parks land, the state attorney general's office most likely will prosecute the case, Evans said.
Evans had no further information about the specific cartel that could be overseeing the marijuana plantations found in the area.
To contact Staff Writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4236.