UKIAH, Calif. — Sgt. Ron Caudillo of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department saw the change coming five years ago as he looked down an old logging road covered with 7,000 marijuana plants.
His experience in the state's most fertile pot-growing area told him the garden was not the work of any local doper. The scale was too big, the rows of sinsemilla too straight. Whoever it was didn't even spread out the crop to avoid discovery.
Based on police intelligence reports and the presence of Spanish-language newspapers at the site, Caudillo suspected the plants belonged to Mexican growers--advance men for an influx of heavily armed traffickers now vying to dominate the state's top cash crop.
"We weren't used to seeing gardens like that," Caudillo said. "Looking back, it was a sign of what was to come. In virtually every garden we went into after that, we kept finding the same things."
Growing marijuana in California was once the exclusive domain of native-born profiteers, flower children from the 1960s and enterprising potheads with a knack for horticulture. Not anymore.
Over the last 10 years, authorities say, domestic producers have been gradually displaced by Mexican traffickers whose squads of undocumented workers and paid pistoleros trespass onto private property and national forest land to plant marijuana on an unprecedented scale.
Today, authorities in many parts of the state believe that 80% to 90% of the cannabis plants they confiscate from outdoor operations belong to Mexican growers. Most of them, police suspect, have ties to Mexico's powerful drug cartels, which are steadily expanding their operations in the United States.
"Mexican nationals have been branching out into heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and now marijuana. They are just taking over everything," said Special Agent Bill Ruzzamenti, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration supervisor who has overseen marijuana investigations in California.
The trend is particularly troublesome for police and property owners. With the price of potent sinsemilla at a minimum of $4,000 a pound wholesale, the pressure to safeguard crops and get them to market has increased substantially.
As a result, the new wave of growers pack more firearms than their predecessors, raising the potential for violence.
Federal statistics show that the number of firearms seized at outdoor marijuana farms in California has increased more than 25%, from 423 to 550, over the last five years. Those weapons range from .22-caliber pistols to military-style assault rifles.
In Northern California, Mexican national growers have opened fire on competitors, timber company employees and law enforcement officers.
"It has turned into a real public safety issue," said Doug Goss, the land security officer for Louisiana Pacific Corp., which owns 320,000 acres of timber in and around Mendocino County. "There is a considerable threat to our workers, contractors and those who use our land for recreation, like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and churches."
For years, Goss had been on the receiving end of warning shots fired from semiautomatic and automatic rifles--sometimes 50 rounds at a time, he says. Then, two years ago, he and a Mendocino deputy sheriff raided what they thought was a small garden belonging to Mexican nationals west of Ukiah. From 20 feet away, one of the growers shot twice at the deputy with a revolver. Goss returned three shots with his pistol, but his target escaped into the forest. No one was injured.
Drug policy analysts say the entry of larger and more violent organizations from Mexico simply reflects the economics of the marketplace.
Demand for pot, particularly among the nation's youth, has risen slightly since 1990 after a decade of decline. At the same time, eradication programs have reduced supply, putting upward pressure on price.
Powerful sinsemilla, the type of cannabis predominantly grown outdoors in California, now fetches prices as high as $8,000 a pound in some parts of the country.
By moving over the border, drug experts say, Mexican national groups have been able to fatten their profits even more by reducing transportation costs and eliminating the need to bribe government officials to get their shipments through.
The typical Mexican national operation relies heavily on illegal immigrants, who are lured with wages of $200 to $250 a week plus cash bonuses, free trips to the United States and fraudulent immigration documents.
All tools, pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation hoses, camping supplies and weapons are brought in on foot over some of the most rugged and inaccessible country in the state. Similarly, the harvest is hauled out in duffel bags and backpacks.
Although Northern California continues to be the venue of choice for most marijuana farmers, vast Mexican-run fields also are showing up with alarming frequency in San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles, San Diego and Ventura counties--on farms, avocado ranches, state land and national forests.