The damage they do to society is well-known, but drug traffickers, it turns out, also aren’t the most environmentally-minded campers. Law enforcement officials say that a wildfire now raging in Santa Barbara’s Los Padres National park, burning more than 136 square miles, was sparked by a cooking fire started by the hirelings of a Mexican drug cartel which was growing thousands of marijuana plants in the remote canyons.
Far from an isolated incident, the Los Padres fire, according to law enforcement agents, highlights an alarming trend: the invasion of California wilderness and parklands by armed Mexican drug cartels. Firefighters discovered more than 30,000 pot plants growing near the Santa Barbara blaze. Pushed north by a Mexican army crack-down, tougher border controls, and violent gang wars back home that have led to hundreds of killings, these cartels view California’s 31 million acres of wilderness as a green El Dorado for marijuana cultivation. Not only is it closer to millions of eager American pot-smokers, but this vast expanse of land is simply too big for the state’s sheriffs and forest rangers to monitor. And soon, thanks to the state’s crippling fiscal crisis, authorities will have an even tougher time stopping the Mexican drug gangs in the Californian forests. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says that because of a whopping budget deficit, he plans to shut down public access to over 100 state parks. The governor also intends to slash hundreds of jobs for forest rangers and police. Already, some cash-strapped counties in northern California have less than 20 rangers and police to patrol large swathes of forests. “We have a lot of public land where criminal activity is taking place,” says Lake County Sherriff Rodney Mitchell, who so far this year has seized at least 407,000 plants probably only a tenth of the estimated total of what will be harvested next month in the Humboldt-Mendocino area. Each Christmas tree-sized plant of the potent “sinsemilla” variety yields around $3,500, making marijuana the biggest cash crop in California. With the latest California budget cutbacks, says Michelle Gregory, a spokesperson for the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, “We won’t be able to find as many of the drug growers.” Several days after a bust, the cartels often return to the same area to re-plant their giant pot gardens. A single cartel, she says, will send its workers into parkland to plant up to seven fields of fields of marijuana, covering dozens of acres, spread out over the canyons and ridges, each with more than 20,000 plants. “It’s an epidemic,” she says.
Not only do the drug growers start forest fires, but they also inject a new element of criminality into California’s mellow pot-growing scene. A few murders have occurred among suspected Mexican traffickers, and it is common for the cartels to hijack a rival’s crop at harvest. Says Gregory, “On nearly every raid we find weapons.” Many times, in fact, the cartel will encircle their marijuana plots with deadly booby-traps, such as buried spikes or shotgun shells attached to a trip-wire. “They’re rigged to go off if anyone wanders in, like a hiker or a lawman,” she adds. Wildnerness creatures also stumble into these fatal traps. Most of the planting is off the hiking trails in state and national parks and on territory owned by the Bureau of Land Management, but authorities say that the cartels are becoming more brazen, moving their cannabis crop closer to the roads. Planting marijuana on such a massive scale usually leaves deep scars on the pristine landscape, says Lake County Sherriff Mitchell. The cartels, he says, use toxic pesticides that seep into the land and water, and the workers, usually illegal immigrants from Mexico, leave their trash scattered around. They also poach deer and other animals for food. Mitchell says that last year a huge fire which destroyed thousands of acres of prime forest land in the Humboldt-Mendocino area was probably caused by drug traffickers. “These people who have the shared beliefs of legalizing marijuana and protecting the environment ought to see the terrible damage that’s being done out there,” says Mitchell.
So far, the extreme violence that the Mexican cartels practice back home hasn’t spilled over to California. Up north, says one Drug Enforcement Administration agent, “They’re better behaved.” But the main Mexican cartels La Familia, Los Gueros, the Sinaloa and Tijuana cartels are all growing cannabis in California, and have ties with Hispanic gangs in 240 cities across the U.S. For now, says DEA spokesman Rusty Paine, “The kidnapping and the killings are on the other side of the border. But any time you have drugs, money and weapons together, bad things will happen.” And with many of California state parks set to close down, odds are they’ll happen soon.
See pictures of the great American pot smoke-out.
Watch TIME’s video “Medical Marijuana Home Delivery.”