Weed Killers

DEA agents see Mexican cartels behind huge pot farms here

It began in early July, when a helicopter pilot conducting drug surveillance looked down into a heavily wooded area near the Trinity River and noticed something odd. Among the trees and brush, he saw a thicket of green, leafy plants that looked suspicious. He circled and photographed the area; authorities would eventually recognize the plants as marijuana.

On July 12, when floodwaters subsided enough to allow law enforcement into the area, Drug Enforcement Administration agents floated to the site on boats. They found a tent, a generator and irrigation pipes that were feeding about 325 marijuana plants, some of which had grown as high as 12 feet.

It was an astonishing find, and not just because outdoor cultivation of pot is rare in North Texas. The small grove, just off Spur 482, was only a few hundred yards behind the DEA's Dallas headquarters.

But that was only the beginning of what would be a historic month for the Dallas DEA. Eight days later, Grand Prairie police got a call tipping them off to a large field of marijuana growing in a swampy, wooded area near the city's border with Dallas. Once law enforcement officers hacked their way back to the field (they would eventually use bulldozers and all-terrain vehicles to remove the crop), they found a campsite that included a propane tank, sleeping bags and food supplies. They also found PVC pipes running from a creek to hand-dug irrigation ditches. It would prove to be the largest drug crop ever found in the Dallas area—10,451 plants covering about seven acres. The crop was near harvesting, and had it reached the streets, it would have been worth $5 million to $10 million.

In the time since, Dallas police and the DEA have discovered three more pot fields in the same area—one of which contained as many as 8,000 plants spread over four acres. Whoever the growers were, they were particularly brazen: One field was found just east of a police shooting range; another was just a few hundred yards from Ronald W. Reagan Middle School. At each site, investigators found similarities—including campsites and irrigation systems that fed off nearby creeks—leading them to believe the farms are linked. All told, they have uprooted 21,256 plants worth an estimated $21 million since July 12.

"I've talked to DEA agents who have been here for 38 years and they say they have never seen anything like this," says Dallas DEA spokeswoman Terri Wyatt.

While they may make headlines in North Texas, outdoor pot farms are nothing new. In fact, California has struggled with the problem for decades, so much so that its state department has a task force specifically charged with ferreting out illegal growing operations. In the first nine months of 2006 alone, California agents seized and destroyed 1.2 million illegally cultivated marijuana plants, worth an estimated $4.9 billion. The highest number of plants are grown on state and federal land, often in national forests, but in recent years, marijuana has been found in suburban areas, growing in underdeveloped canyons and foothills in places like Malibu and Orange County.

And it's spreading. Just last month, a conservation intern stumbled upon a marijuana operation just outside suburban Chicago that consisted of 30,000 plants spread over 1,650 acres in a forest preserve. It was the largest outdoor crop of illegal drugs ever discovered in the Chicago area.

So what's going on?

Drug enforcement experts say heightened security at the border has forced traffickers to get more creative.

Former DEA agent Phil Jordan, who headed the Dallas office, says the fields found here were most likely backed by Mexican drug cartels.

"Based on their size and sophistication, that would be my guess," he says. "Marijuana is much bulkier to transport than cocaine or heroin. If you grow it here, you cut down on the chances of it being caught at the border, and you reduce transportation costs."

"Plus, there's little chance the guys financing it are going to be caught."

Since the seizures, some law enforcement agents, both publicly and privately, have questioned why the DEA didn't watch the fields once they were discovered, to catch the growers.

Wyatt says the DEA would have liked to have done so, but the media reported on the discovery of the first field before they had a chance to set up surveillance.

"When you have a helicopter hovering over an area for 30-45 minutes looking at something, it draws attention," she says. "Reporters listen to the scanner and then they figure out what's going on."

Wyatt says DEA agents are chasing leads and combing through evidence gathered at the campsites, including fingerprints. But even if that leads to arrests, it is unlikely they will ever find the money men behind the fields. In California, growers who have been caught and arrested have typically been illegal immigrants paid by the cartels to watch the fields. Some have even been forced to tend the fields to pay off smuggling debts.

But enforcement there has had an effect: It has moved growers inside. In the last year alone, authorities have seized more than $100 million in pot from homes that have been converted into greenhouses, complete with blacked-out windows, sophisticated irrigation, timed lighting and ventilation systems to reduce odors. This spring, six major indoor pot farms—all of them in upscale suburbs—were found in Southern California in one month alone.

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