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Raid in Los Padres Uproots Pot Farms

Authorities invade the national forest as part of an annual attack on the illegal crop. Monday's take: 6,000 plants valued at $24 million.

August 03, 2004|Arianne Aryanpur | Times Staff Writer

Law enforcement officers literally descended on two pot farms in northern Ventura County early Monday as part of an annual crackdown on illegal harvests.

More than two dozen county and federal agents, some dropping in from a helicopter on 150-foot cables, participated in the eradication program in Los Padres National Forest. Authorities said 6,000 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $24 million were destroyed.

The raids came near the beginning of the marijuana harvest season, which runs from July through November, said Val Jimenez, operations commander with Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, a task force that assists the U.S. Forest Service and the National Guard in statewide eradication efforts. Managed by the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, CAMP includes local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Officers have found 90 marijuana gardens and fields in California since ground operations began in April, followed by helicopter surveillance in July, he said -- more than 100,000 plants, or roughly $400 million in pot.

"At this rate, we're looking at half a million plants this year, easy," Jimenez said.

On Friday, 10 miles away in the same area of the county, authorities also discovered a grove yielding more than 4,000 plants valued at $1.6 million.

Officers will use the drop tactics again today when they move to a remote area of San Bernardino County.

Marijuana raids in California began decades ago, and over the years, officers have become more adept at locating groves and apprehending farmers. That doesn't mean, however, that the number of farms is necessarily dwindling, authorities say.

Statewide, officers have noticed a steady increase in marijuana groves -- evidence of growers' drive to stay in the lucrative business, said Michael Goff, a special agent with the Forest Service.

"It's getting worse every year," he said.

The Los Padres forest, which spans five counties including about 860 acres of Ventura County's backcountry, has long been a popular place for Mexican drug cartels to plant marijuana. In recent years, authorities have destroyed tens of thousands of dollars' worth of plants there and made numerous arrests.

Authorities said their efforts have barely scratched the surface and that budget cuts have left organizations such as the Forest Service severely understaffed.

The Forest Service is down to fewer than 60 officers in California, from more than 200 in 1990. "There are fewer of us and more of them," Goff said.

On Wednesday, a dozen officers dressed in camouflage and equipped with clippers dropped onto a 30-acre grove after having canvassed the area by foot earlier that morning. They were also armed with 9-millimeter handguns.

"Our major concern here is public safety," Jimenez said.

Marijuana farmers not only threaten the officers who come after them, according to Jimenez, but tend to shoot at anything that moves near a farm. This has made fishermen, hunters and hikers who roam the federal land frequent targets, he said.

"They shoot first and ask questions later," Goff said.

In addition to threatening people, Goff said, marijuana growers damage the environment. Their camps take a toll on surrounding habitats, and they sometimes poach deer and squirrels for food, he said.

Monday's raid turned up camp litter of rusted cans of Spam, Tang and a bag of fertilizer. Runoff from fertilizer, pesticides and even rat poison used to fend off rodents also endangers the habitat, Goff said.

Two years ago, authorities were alerted to marijuana harvesting in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area after tadpoles in an adjacent creek died from fertilizer runoff.

As with most sites, officers found Monday's grove by helicopter surveillance after scouting the area for several months. The confiscated plants were burned, along with plants from Friday's raid, in a controlled area a few miles from the grove.

No arrests were made Monday, but officers were watching an adjacent garden by midafternoon in hope of apprehending the farmers who had fled.

Nineteen people have been arrested so far this year, most of them illegal Mexican immigrants who tend the farms.

Rita Wears, a commander with the Forest Service, said the agency will continue to eradicate groves as long as farmers continue to grow marijuana. And it doesn't look as if they'll be letting up anytime soon, she said.

"They're just gonna keep on trying," Wears said.

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