Drug cartels pushed from our forests

Article subtitle: 
Jackson County eradication efforts appear to have cut organized crime pot grows — for now, observers say
Article author: 
Chris Conrad
Article publisher: 
Article date: 
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Article category: 
Article Body: 

By this time in recent years, local police agencies already would have trudged miles into remote forestlands to jerk hundreds of thousands of marijuana plants linked to Mexican drug cartels out of the ground and burn them.

The cartels, police say, are responsible for virtually all of the major marijuana gardens on public lands. The "cartel grows," as police call them, are a danger to the public and an environmental catastrophe. Some cartel operations have been booby-trapped and guarded by armed sentinels. Police in Northern California have engaged in gun battles with suspects in large marijuana gardens.

Last year, two Jackson County sheriff's deputies shot and killed a Mexican national suspected of guarding a cartel garden near Salt Creek in northern Jackson County. The deputies believed the man, who was armed with a shotgun but never fired his weapon, was a threat. A grand jury cleared the deputies of wrongdoing in the shooting.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters and District Attorney Mark Huddleston declined to release the names of the deputies involved because they feared retribution from a Mexican drug cartel suspected of being responsible for the growing operation.

In 2010, a team formed to fight suspected drug cartels growing marijuana in Southern Oregon forests pulled 125,787 cartel plants with an estimated value of more than $283 million.

This was in line with previous years, when police from various agencies descended into Jackson County's forests to destroy cartel gardens that stretched for miles.

This year, however, the gardens were nowhere to be found.

"We've only been in two cartel gardens in 2011," Winters said. "The number of plants were very low. We saw a 93 percent reduction this year in cartel marijuana in southwest Oregon."

The cartel gardens were such a problem before 2011 that the sheriff formed the Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation team, or SOMMER, which covers Jackson, Josephine, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Klamath and Lake counties. SOMMER operates on a $600,000 budget, funded mostly by federal grants. The team's sole purpose is to rid Southern Oregon of cartel gardens.

So, mission accomplished? Not so fast, say law enforcement and civilian authorities on drug cartels.

A shadowy presence

Local cops throw around the word "cartel" when describing the organizations behind large marijuana gardens. But what exactly do they mean when they describe a criminal enterprise run by a "cartel?"

Chris Gibson is the director of Oregon's High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which funnels $3.16 million in federal grant money to nine Oregon counties to help fight drug distribution.

Because Interstate 5 runs through Jackson County, it is considered a highly traveled corridor for traffickers moving drugs from Los Angeles to Seattle and beyond.

"When we talk about cartels, what comes to mind is seven or eight large drug organizations that operate in Mexico at a given time," Gibson said. "They are the suppliers for most of the drugs that move into Oregon."

The National Drug Intelligence Center recently released its report for 2011. In it, the organization describes seven major cartels that are the most active in moving drugs from Mexico to the United States.

Of these, the Sinaloa Cartel is the most powerful, according to federal officials.

The Sinaloa Cartel is based on Mexico's Pacific Coast and is responsible for much of the drugs moving up and down the Interstate 5 corridor. The Washington Post reports that the Sinaloa Cartel ships hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana into the U.S. each year and is responsible for some of the most heinous acts of violence wracking Mexico, including beheadings and large shootouts in cities across the country.

The Sinaloa Cartel's largest rival is the Tijuana Cartel, which also moves hundreds of tons of marijuana and powder drugs such as cocaine and heroin along the West Coast each year.

The two sides have been at war in recent years over the U.S. Pacific Coast market, which includes the lucrative cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement supervisor Deputy Chief Tim Doney said it's reasonable to assume the cartels have a presence in Jackson County.

"We have knowledge of specific cartels that have done business in this area," Doney said. "But we don't name them publicly because these cases remain open."

Medford police Lt. Brett Johnson, a MADGE supervisor, said the cartels have a strong influence in the Rogue Valley even though members of the crime organizations are not in the area.

"A lot of the folks we arrest here are the 'expendables,' " Johnson said. "They are low-level dealers with ties to the cartels."

In fact, Gibson said, he doubts a high-ranking cartel member has ever set foot in Oregon.

"You're not going to find these cartels basing an operation in Oregon," Gibson said. "You are just going to find their influence and their dope."

Cartel leaders rarely stray from their home bases in Mexico, according to Winters.

"Why would they take the chance in coming up here when they can send underlings?" Winters said. "It's like a major corporation. The worker on the line doesn't know who the big boss is in another city. The cartels keep it that way because they distance themselves from the street dealers who often get arrested."

Winters added that the men who guard the marijuana gardens often are paid by cartel middle men to tend the crops. They receive a payout at harvest season.

"They probably never speak to the guy at the higher level who funds a particular grow site," Winters said. "But they know if they make a mistake or they don't bring in the profits, then they are in trouble. It could cost them their lives."

Changing tactics

As powerful as Mexico's large cartels are — and there is ample proof they wield much influence in their country's government and financial sectors — they are keen on seeking the path of least resistance when carving marijuana gardens into public forestlands.

Over the past five years, local agencies scoured southwest Oregon forests looking for the large gardens. The unwelcome heat most likely inspired the cartels to move into areas where they can operate without prying eyes.

One of their new targets is the mountains and vast forests of northeastern Oregon.

In June, 91,000 pot plants were pulled in the state's largest reported marijuana garden in the Blue Mountains, just outside Enterprise.

Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen said his agency has received solid intelligence that the garden was connected to a Mexican cartel.

"We won't name a particular cartel," Steen said. "But this was a professional operation. They had sleeping areas, water, irrigation, a cooking area. It was a well-organized camp."

Winters said the gardens in Wallowa County closely resembled those previously discovered in Jackson County.

"They just moved into a place where there were hundreds of thousands of miles of wildland and not enough law enforcement to cover it all," Winters said. "It's impossible to patrol that much land, even if you had 100 deputies. This is why this problem is so hard for us to deal with."

Doney said he expects the cartels will try to creep back into Jackson County in the coming years. The weather and the soil are conducive to growing world-class pot, he said.

"There's just too much money to be made here," Doney added. "They'll take every chance they get to make money."

Cornering the meth market

Just because the marijuana gardens have slowed down doesn't mean the cartels aren't cashing in on Jackson County's drug market.

Since 2005, when Oregon banned over-the-counter sales of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient in meth, the local meth lab scene has all but dried up.

The cartels were happy to step in and meet the demand, Gibson said.

"I'd say that 97 percent of the meth that comes into Oregon is from cartel-run super labs in Mexico," Gibson said.

Doney agreed, adding that the cartels have the capital to buy meth ingredients by the ton to produce in these labs.

"It's not only meth," Doney said. "These cartels are responsible for most of the cocaine and heroin we see. Just because they aren't moving marijuana in the forests, doesn't mean they aren't selling powder drugs."

In fact, Johnson said that despite the curtailing of pseudoephedrine, there's as much meth in Oregon as there ever has been.

"It's now coming from these super labs run by cartels," Johnson said. "Meth labs in Oregon have gone the way of the dinosaur."

The U.S. Department of Justice supports MADGE's claims, saying that the movement of meth from Mexico into the Pacific Northwest is gaining steam.

The agency comes to a bleak conclusion concerning the influence Mexican cartels will have in the Pacific Northwest's drug market in the coming years.

The agency cites the cartels' near monopoly of smuggling routes in the U.S.'s southwest border regions and their ability to "produce (or obtain), transport, and distribute nearly every major illicit drug of abuse in the United States."

The power of the cartels will not wane anytime soon, despite the governments of both Mexico and the U.S. spending hundreds of millions each year on efforts to fight the cartel influence.

"Major Mexican-based (cartels) and their associates are solidifying their dominance of the U.S. wholesale drug trade and will maintain their reign for the foreseeable future," the Department of Justice said in its report.

According to the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, a program of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 10.3 million marijuana plants were pulled nationally in 2010 — about 2 million more than in 2008.

Nearly half of the plants were found on federal lands.

  • Data from the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior, which oversees Bureau of Land Management property, indicate that a combined total of nearly 4.6 million plants — 44 percent of all marijuana eradicated nationally — came from federal lands during 2010.
  • According to the USFS, the number of plants eradicated from national forests increased dramatically in each of the past five years, reaching a new record in 2010 — 3.5 million plants. The number of national forests where grow sites were eradicated increased from 55 forests in 2008 to 59 forests in 2009.
  • National forests in California account for the largest plant eradication total from public lands in any region. In 2010, almost all marijuana — 3.1 million of 3.5 million plants — eradicated from national forests was found on 16 national forests in California.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.