The Pot Farms of Sequoia

This piece was translated by Miguel A. Bez and Monica Monroe, and originally appeared in Noticero Semanal.

Sequoia National Park authorities have found at least 40 marijuana fields in the last two years. Last year, five undocumented Mexican immigrants were arrested in one of the fields, according to a National Park Service investigator who did not want to be identified.

"About 95 percent of the people who grow marijuana in this park are illegal aliens," the agent said. "The illegals just work in the fields but the people who really run them are first- and second-generation Mexican Americans who recruit these illegals, promising them $15,000 cash and sometimes more to grow marijuana for just four months," he said.

These undocumented immigrants are among a group of unemployed day laborers who can be found outside large hardware and construction stores in the San Joaquin Valley, waiting for someone to hire them for a day's work. Many of them used to work in the fields of the Central Valley.

"Some of them don't even know they were hired to grow marijuana until they get to the park," the agent said.

But the land owners don't keep their promises to the field workers. Many undocumented farmhands never see their money, either because they get arrested before getting paid or because their bosses disappear with all the drugs, the agent said.

Nearly all the marijuana that has been found and confiscated was grown near rivers or streams on the hillsides. Between 10,000 to 20,000 marijuana plants are grown on each field, whose average size is about one acre. Walking through these areas is difficult because of the roughness and inaccessibility of the land. The vast vegetation of pine trees, oak trees, bushes and other plants provide these fields with shade and protection. This makes the authorities' job harder. Even with the use of helicopters, finding marijuana fields in the Sequoia National Park is not easy.

How Growers Operate

Growing marijuana in the Sequoia National Park has become a highly sophisticated process.

"Obviously there are more people behind this and they are the ones that pay for all of this," the agent said. "We have learned that the people in charge have connections with cartels in Mexico. These cartels send highly trained people to teach the undocumented immigrants how to grow marijuana, and how to find the perfect area for the fields," he added.

The irrigation system in nearly all the fields is sophisticated; a drip system provides water to each plant through a hidden underground irrigation pipes installed in rivers, or under running water coming from the mountains. Water is pumped uphill through pipes that are activated by solar timers.

"They start growing marijuana between March and April," said Richard Thiel, one of the park's employees.

The undocumented immigrants recruited to grow marijuana live in the fields during the four months it takes the plants to grow.

"They live in tents and have drinking water and bathrooms," the agent said. "Besides the workers, there are also one or two armed men," said the agent. These guards don't work in the fields; they just watch the workers to make sure they don't run away and watch for outsiders.

"Every ten days people come to bring them food, fertilizers and pesticides," said the agent said. Sometimes the suppliers don't come for many days and the workers have to go for days without eating. Many of the people who bring supplies to them are women with children, probably to deter the authorities, according to the investigator.

"But these women, knowing that what they are doing is wrong, ignore the fact that they could also be arrested, in addition to having their car confiscated and their children taken away," the investigator said.

How Authorities Operate

"It is a crime to take food and leave it by the side of the road," said the agent in charge of the investigation. The crime is even worse when weapons, fertilizers and pesticides are brought into the park.

Currently, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is investigating one of the suppliers with the goal of finding the leaders of the operation.

"As long as we're just arresting the ones who grow marijuana in the park, we're not going to solve the problem," the investigator said. "We are going directly for the people at the top."

"There are forest rangers that are trained to lead investigations, detentions and also to continue with the investigations after the arrests are made," he said. To make the search of the marijuana fields more effective, the park authorities are now using a tracking system, utilizing new and different tactics.

"We will install electronic sensors, satellite detectors and other innovative techniques that have been designed in the last few years," the agent said.

Meanwhile, some groups are trying to make growing marijuana in national parks a federal crime.

"We are trying to charge the detainees with federal crimes and not just for illegal violations, especially since Sequoia Park is a national park under the protection of the federal government," the agent said.

Punishment and sentences

"Planting and growing marijuana in national parks is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison and a charge of conspiracy that can add five to 10 years," said Alexandra Picavet, public information officer of the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of Interior, assigned to the Sequoia National Park.

"And if there are charges of firearm possession, this adds 10 more years to the original sentence," Picavet said. She added that the suppliers that are arrested for conspiracy can be sentenced to five to 10 years in prison, in addition to having their car confiscated and losing custody of their children.

Nobody knows exactly when Sequoia National Park started to be used to grow marijuana, but authorities estimate that this has been going on for many years. The discovery of the first field at the beginning of 2001 was purely coincidental, according to Thiel.

Thiel said that one day a forest ranger noticed water flowing out of the ground on one of the park's many small trails. He started to investigate and discovered that the water was coming out of a leak in an underground pipe.

"He tried to tear it out of the ground but the pipe was much longer than he first thought so he continued tearing it out of the ground until he came to a huge marijuana field," Thiel said. "For his own security, and also as to not alert anyone nearby, he immediately left to alert the authorities," he said.

Hikers have also found fields in the park that they reported to authorities. Other than confiscating drugs, authorities had confiscated an AK47, shotguns, pistols and .22 caliber rifles.

Meanwhile, the remains of fertilizer and pesticides that the marijuana growers are using have started to cause ecological problems in the forests after they mix with the river water, according to Picavet.

"This is a problem that, if not prevented immediately, can with time cause irreversible harm to plant and animal life in the park," she said.
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