Marijuana wars: Violent Mexican drug cartels turn Northern California into ‘The Wild West’

 Mexican drug cartels are muscling in on America’s burgeoning multi-billion-dollar marijuana industry, illegally growing large crops in the hills and valleys of Northern California.

The state legalized marijuana in 2016 for adult recreational use, yet the black market continues to thrive with thousands of illegal grows. Criminal syndicates, in turn, are cashing in across the U.S. on the “green gold rush.”

They’re undercutting prices of legalized products offered by permitted farmers who follow the rulegs and pay taxes.

And they’re exploiting workers, robbing and shooting adversaries, poisoning wildlife and poaching water in a state fighting widespread drought and devastating wildfires.

Lured by America’s push toward legalized cannabis, cartels have abandoned many decades-old marijuana farms in Mexico, moving their operations to Northern California where they can blend in seamlessly alongside legitimate grows, said Mike Sena, executive director of Northern California’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task forces. 

“Why try to bring that bulk marijuana into the United States, when you can just grow it in the United States in remote locations like Mendocino County and then move it across the entire country?”

Round Valley is home to the town of Covelo, which includes the Round Valley Indian Reservation. A marijuana growing operation in Mendocino County, part of Northern California’s famed “Emerald Triangle.”

Major cartels, including the top powerhouses — Sinaloa and Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación or CJNG— also continue trafficking billions of dollars of heroin, meth and opioids into the U.S. and countries worldwide.

They’re flooding the streets with fentanyl, often pressed into pills to mimic prescription medicine, fueling skyrocketing overdoses that killed more than 100,000 people during the pandemic. The cartels and their drugs also have infiltrated Kentucky, where overdose deaths rose 49% in 2020, killing nearly 2,000 people.

Americans’ growing embrace of marijuana has given the cartels an avenue to expand their reach, employing the same vicious tactics they use to push out competitors in the illicit opioidtrade.

John Haschak, a member of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, said the county has issued about 1,100 permits for cannabis cultivation.

Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall told The Courier Journal there are as many as 10,000 illegal grows in his jurisdiction, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco. He tries to target the worst 100, which is all his small force can handle in a year.

Marijuana farming in the ‘Emerald Triangle’

Kendall’s county of 91,000 residents forms the base of California’s famed “Emerald Triangle,” topped by Humboldt and Trinity counties, a remote region where marijuana growers far outnumber police.

Evidence collected by the Mendocino County Sheriff's department confiscated from illegal growing operations.
Evidence collected by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s department confiscated from illegal growing operations.COURTESY MENDOFEVER

In Mendocino County, just 21 deputies patrol a jurisdiction that stretches over 3,506 square miles, from ocean-side cliffs on its western border to the Mendocino National Forest on the east.

The area is double the geographic footprint of Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, Chicago and Denver combined. 

Because of the twisty terrain, It can take sheriff’s deputies up to an hour to reach the site of an emergency or crime.

“We have international cartels successfully operating here” setting up multi-million dollar farm operations, said California Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, a former highway patrolman.

“They’re poisoning our ground and stealing our water, and we have drought out here,” he said.

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