Special report: Billions in cartel pot profits fuel trafficking | TheUnion.com
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Special report: Billions in cartel pot profits fuel trafficking

Marijuana-growing operations run by Mexican drug cartels will continue to be a problem in California, even if Proposition 19 passes, law enforcement officials say.

That’s because the drug trafficking organizations find it enormously profitable to establish plantations in California – often on public lands – and they aren’t selling the marijuana locally.

Prop. 19 would legalize marijuana use, possession and cultivation of small amounts for personal use in California.



“Most of what (cartels) are growing … goes out of state,” said Special Agent Michelle Gregory of the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. “I doubt they will go away. They make so much money off it.”

Each plant produces about one to two pounds of processed marijuana; price estimates vary, officials said.




“We value (marijuana) at $3,500 per pound, and then they can turn around and sell it to another state for $8,000 a pound,” Gregory said. Other agencies estimate the value at $2,000 to $3,000 per pound.

A 40,000-plant farm raided by Nevada County narcotics agents in September is typical of those run by Mexican drug cartels. In Mexican operations, it’s not unusual to find tens of thousands of marijuana plants in several locations, Gregory said.

Profits fund the rest of the cartel’s criminal activities, she added.

“These are trafficking organizations, not only in marijuana, but also cocaine and methamphetamine, weapons, human trafficking,” Gregory said.

More than 60 percent of the cartels’ revenue – $8.6 billion out of $13.8 billion estimated in 2006 – comes from American marijuana sales, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Well-organized Mexican cartels increasingly are growing marijuana on public lands in the United States, according to local authorities. This strategy gives Mexicans direct access to U.S. markets, avoids the risk of seizure at the border and reduces transportation costs.

“The Mexican cartels are just looking for free land to grow their dope on,” said Nevada County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bill Smethers of the Narcotics Task Force.

Officials worry about an increase in violence this year that left five suspects dead during raids of marijuana plantations across Northern California.

“During the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting season (which lasts from June to October), we averaged one a week (this year) in regard to shootings or confrontations, as opposed to years past,” Gregory said. “But there’s always been the potential for confrontations.”

Some of the tactics used locally to discourage confrontation have included buzzing the sites with helicopters to scare the growers off, or sneaking in very early in the morning, Smethers said.

“They have been more violent in other counties,” Smethers added. “Fortunately, we haven’t had problems yet (in Nevada County) – but that day is coming. We find guns (at the campsites) and we see them discarding loaded weapons as they flee.

“They’re loaded for bear and looking to protect the gardens.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229.


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