From the Magazine  
December 15, 2003

Losing Ground

By Katherine McIntire Peters

Forced north by enhanced U.S. border security, Mexican cartels are seizing land to grow and produce drugs in national parks and forests.

South of Los Angeles, between the gated coastal communities of Orange County and the working-class towns inland, the Cleveland National Forest is a rugged oasis amid the urban sprawl. If you hike back from the busy two-lane Ortega Highway, which snakes through the dense brush and sage-covered canyons of the Santa Ana Mountains in the northern part of the forest, you enter a world of cedar and cypress, gigantic boulders and scrub oak, where gnarled junipers cling tightly to steep, wind-swept ravines. It would be easy to assume this land, where trails routinely cross 85-degree slopes, is fit only for hikers and rock climbers. In fact, the Cleveland National Forest is a major battleground in the U.S. war on drugs - a battleground increasingly ceded to foreign drug cartels.

Paradoxically, government attempts to enhance national security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have fueled this trend. Tightened border security has made it harder for traffickers to move drugs from Mexico across the southwest border, spurring producers to move their operations north of the border and closer to their market. And the Defense Department, in an effort to focus more resources on overseas military operations, has decided to reduce its counternarcotics support to civilian law enforcement agencies. The reduction in Defense's assistance comes despite the fact that it has been critical in limiting domestic drug production in recent years and the suspected connections between the Mexican cartels and Middle Eastern terrorists.

Marijuana and methamphetamines, and this year even opium, are being produced in record quantities on public land - much of it in California. The remote terrain and scarcity of law enforcement on public land always have attracted loners and outlaws. But more and more, those outlaws are well-armed foreign nationals working for Mexican drug trafficking organizations. And some cartels are believed to have financial links to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah. Last spring, for example, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Canadian authorities arrested nearly 70 people in the United States and Canada, among them a number of Jordanians, believed to be smuggling the ingredients for methamphetamine production from Canada into California for use in Mexican-run labs.

Three months ago, in a secluded stretch of forest near a campground off the Ortega Highway, Orange County sheriff's deputies seized 2,200 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $3 million. The haul was small potatoes. Law enforcement officials seized more than 115,000 marijuana plants in the Cleveland National Forest last year - more than in any other forest in the country. In 2002, eight of the top 10 national forests found to produce marijuana were in California. Forest Service officials expect law enforcement operations will net 500,000 marijuana plants from California forests this year - almost all of it believed to be grown by Mexican cartels.

Dan Bauer, a senior special agent in the Forest Service and the national program coordinator for the agency's counterdrug operations, says drug production on federal land has grown exponentially since the mid-1990s. The effects of the activity are wide-ranging: More drugs find their way to the streets, ecological harm to public lands is severe and growing, and violent activity in parks and forests poses serious threats to public safety. With the street value for high-grade marijuana sometimes exceeding that of cocaine, the financial incentives for producers are enormous. To guard their high-value crops, growers are carrying automatic assault rifles and booby-trapping the areas they cultivate. As a result, the danger to federal land managers is growing. "That's a lot of exposure for our people, and a lot of our people didn't get into the Forest Service to do this," says Bauer. Like many other officials familiar with the issue, Bauer believes the problem will only worsen in the next few years. "We fully expect we will see these drug trafficking organizations reach into Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Arkansas," he says.



Ross Butler, the Bureau of Land Management's acting special agent in charge for California, says BLM's experience mirrors that of the Forest Service. "The violence has definitely escalated, and we've had a number of employees threatened." One employee was checking on range improvements on federal land in San Benito County when he stumbled across a marijuana garden. Two armed growers took him hostage. After several hours he managed to talk his way out of the situation, promising not to disclose the location of the plot. "He was so terrified, he didn't even tell agency officials about it for four months. By then, it was too late to do anything about it. He still won't talk about it," because the growers instilled such fear in him, says Butler.

The National Park Service reports a similar trend. Last year, 12 growers were arrested in Sequoia National Park, northeast of Los Angeles. As of mid-October, three had been arrested. "Unfortunately, none of the arrests have led to the higher levels of the cartel [believed to be operating in the park]," said Richard Martin, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, testifying before a House Government Reform Committee field hearing in the park in October. "We are deeply concerned for the safety of National Park Service employees who must fight this war on drugs and for those visitors who seek to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the back country."

While all federal land management agencies report an increase in drug production nationwide, particularly in California, the Agriculture Department's Forest Service has experienced the greatest threat. This is partly because the national forests, which cover more than 192 million acres in 44 states - nearly 10 percent of the land mass of the continental United States - tend to be more remote, less popular with visitors, and have less tightly controlled access than do national parks. The forests also tend to be better suited to cultivating marijuana, which grows best at elevations between 4,000 feet and 6,000 feet above sea level. In California, the problem is exacerbated because the agency has authority over 20 million acres, more land than any other federal agency. Forest Service officials say they have identified five separate Mexican drug trafficking organizations operating in the state, one of which has marijuana cultivation operations in seven different forests in nine counties.

In 2002, almost 600,000 plants, with a street value likely in the billions of dollars, were seized from outdoor cultivation sites in national forests across the country. Seventy percent of those were seized from forests in California. In addition, during 2000 and 2001, more than 300 clandestine methamphetamine labs and 500 lab dump sites were found, and 246 pounds of methamphetamines were seized in national forests. "The [cartels] are on virtually every forest in this region," says Laura Mark, who leads the agency's counterdrug operations in California. "These guys are armed, they're in great shape and they know the country like the back of their hand." The growers who manage the gardens for the cartels get a percentage of the profits from their production. They and the laborers, some of whom have been arrested in recent years, generally are Mexican nationals recruited specifically to cultivate marijuana in California, Mark says. They rarely reveal much about their organizations, fearing retaliation by the cartels against their families back in Mexico.

Drug production on federal land presents a singular challenge for land management agencies. In general, they are not well-structured or well-equipped for the mission - Mark, for example, has only six full-time special agents responsible for working all drug cases on Forest Service land in California. On the other hand, the agencies designated to enforce drug laws - the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement in particular - generally are not well-trained to operate in the wilderness. The DEA understandably has focused more on cocaine and heroin trafficking in urban areas than on marijuana production in remote areas because the consequences of cocaine and heroin use are more dangerous and the cost to society much greater. Congress recognized the Forest Service's dilemma as early as 1986, when it gave the agency drug enforcement authority under the National Forest System Drug Control Act. Through a memorandum of understanding with the DEA, the Forest Service assumed leadership in the enforcement of federal drug laws in national forests. "As a rule, we have great relationships with DEA offices and agents, and roles are worked out quite easily. Aside from a few specific areas, the DEA just doesn't do that much drug work on [Forest Service] lands," says Bauer.

With about 400 uniformed law enforcement officers and about 150 special agents nationwide, the Forest Service can't begin to address the drug problem, however. "We have very limited resources," says Tommy LaNier. LaNier coordinates Forest Service counterdrug operations with other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies through the nationwide interagency High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, which is managed by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The Forest Service works with all 28 inter-agency HIDTAs, which are based in major drug-trafficking regions. The HIDTAs receive federal funding to conduct specific, coordinated operations within the counties they represent. "We try to base our operations on real-time intelligence. The HIDTAs allow the members to pool intelligence and coordinate resources," LaNier says.

Interagency cooperation and intelligence sharing has improved through the HIDTAs, LaNier says, allowing the Forest Service and local law enforcement agencies to begin chipping away at the drug trafficking organizations. In addition, the Mexican government is cooperating with U.S. drug investigations to a greater degree than in the past. "There are some positive trends," says LaNier.

In addition, Forest Service biologists recently started studying the DNA of marijuana plants in an effort to unravel the relationships among the growers and the cartels by tracing the lineage of seized plants, which are carefully cultivated and cloned for maximum potency. LaNier hopes to create a database that will allow investigators to more easily connect operations in one forest with operations elsewhere. He's also optimistic that improved satellite technology will allow the Forest Service and law enforcement agencies to more easily spot the clandestine gardens. "Right now, we really have no idea how much stuff we're not getting," LaNier says.

Without more resources, the Forest Service won't begin to adequately address the problem, he says. It's safe to say that people don't join the Forest Service because they want to do drug enforcement, and agency leaders never have been entirely comfortable with the counterdrug mission, he says. Of the Forest Service's 16,000 employees, only about 600 are involved in law enforcement and only a handful of those are focused on illegal drug activity. Responding to poaching and illegal timber harvesting are more traditional law enforcement roles for the service. "We suffer because we don't have the support from our management - sometimes because they don't believe in the law enforcement mission, and sometimes because there are too many competing priorities," such as firefighting and forest health initiatives, LaNier says. "Don't misunderstand, those things are important too, which is why this is so difficult."

"Until the administration says this is a priority, the Forest Service will continue to try to balance a broad spectrum of needs," and counterdrug operations will continue to be shortchanged, says LaNier. "This will get worse before it gets better."



A major setback for the Forest Service occurred in October when the Defense Department revised its counternarcotics program. Since 1995, the Forest Service has been able to tap military surveillance and training resources through Joint Task Force Six, a counterdrug planning and coordination unit in El Paso, Texas, supported by all the military services. The task force was created by Congress to provide intelligence analysis, surveillance, training and other military support to civilian agencies involved in counterdrug activities. The civilian agencies would request support from the task force for specific operations, and the task force would prioritize those requests by the training value the missions would provide the military units conducting them. Not all requests were honored, either because military officials deemed the training value too limited, or because there were no units available or willing to conduct the mission. But volunteer active duty and reserve units honored hundreds of requests a year, mostly from the Border Patrol and the Forest Service.

The military support has been invaluable, says Bauer. He estimates that 95 percent of the aircraft used to spot marijuana in national forests are provided by the military, either by state National Guard units or by active-duty units coordinated by Joint Task Force Six. "If this support goes away, 200,000 to 300,000 plants won't be eradicated" in California forests next year, says Mark.

Under new rules established by Pentagon officials, that is exactly what will happen. Joint Task Force Six no longer will be able to provide direct support to the Forest Service. The Defense Department is shifting responsibility for the mission to the National Guard. According to a senior Defense official, "Even though we recognize there's a need for [aerial surveillance in the Forest Service], it was very difficult to quantify how that was either helping the DoD train for its core mission, or how it was in a strategic way helping get rid of the flow of drugs into this country. Ultimately the determination was made that we will work with the Forest Service to help them get the assets they need. We will help them go to the Hill to get the authorities they need to buy the aircraft and to train the pilots, but we can't, just because we have a $487 billion budget, be the agency that everybody turns to for support."

The idea that the Forest Service, with its $4.8 billion annual budget, could purchase or somehow replace the support it receives from Joint Task Force Six is highly optimistic. Military aircraft use sophisticated surveillance and communications equipment not readily available in the commercial market, and it's hard to conceive how the Forest Service could purchase and maintain a fleet of aircraft for counternarcotics operations. Even if the DEA could increase its aerial surveillance of national forests, Forest Service personnel are not authorized to fly on those aircraft, whereas they are authorized to fly on military aircraft as spotters. Because Forest Service investigators are intimately familiar with the flora of their forests, they are far better than others at spotting marijuana plantations from the air.

This past summer in California alone, Joint Task Force Six provided 62 aircraft for Forest Service surveillance, according to unit officials, with most of them flying multiple missions over the course of an operation. Calculating the value of that support in monetary terms is difficult, because it went well beyond the cost of maintaining the aircraft and paying the salaries of the air crews for the duration of the missions. It also included critical intelligence analysis and mapping data. When the costs of those things are added up, military officials estimate they provided several million dollars' worth of support.

The loss of that support will have far-reaching impact, says Mark. The agency shared surveillance data with state and local law enforcement officials, primarily through the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting program run by the California Department of Justice, allowing state, local and federal agencies to coordinate a response - usually hiking into the gardens, seizing the marijuana, and arresting the growers whenever possible. "I don't think people realize yet what this is going to mean," she says.

Denise Stokes, a Forest Service special agent based in Mentone, Calif., says, "We literally cannot operate in Southern California without Joint Task Force Six." Both because the California National Guard does not have the extensive assets Joint Task Force Six can command and because many of the aerial assets the Guard does have are now deployed to Iraq, "the Guard really cannot support the missions we're doing," Stokes says.

Because the military units that flew surveillance missions for the Forest Service did so voluntarily, agency officials and even some military officials are baffled and frustrated by Defense's new position. If the missions were detracting from the services' warfighting responsibilities, units presumably wouldn't volunteer for them. Under the new rules, the Defense Department will continue to provide support to the HIDTAs and the Justice and Homeland Security departments, according to the senior Defense official. In addition, he said, the military services could pay out of their own training budgets for their units to conduct missions for the Forest Service if they believe the training is so valuable.



While federal agencies sort out their priorities, the forests are producing ever more marijuana. The gardens are becoming more sophisticated and the plants more productive. A few years ago, a large garden might have contained 200 plants; now, officials are finding gardens with 30,000 to 40,000 plants, says Bauer.

Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, says drug production on the 716 million acres of federal and tribal land is a serious and growing problem. ONDCP considers marijuana - the most widely used and available illegal drug and the one about which the public is most ambivalent - to be the nation's leading drug threat. Marijuana also has become extraordinarily potent. In the 1970s, most marijuana contained 1 percent to 3 percent of THC - the ingredient with hallucinogenic properties. Most of the processed marijuana officials seize today has a THC content of 10 percent to 15 percent, and can reach levels of more than 30 percent, according to ONDCP's 2003 National Drug Threat Assessment. With each plant worth anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on potency, federal officials estimate that marijuana is the No. 1 cash crop of a number of states, including California.

Most marijuana gardens follow a standard operating procedure: The growers establish drop-off locations for food deliveries, usually about every two weeks, and the gardens have the same general layout. There are designated areas for cooking, sleeping and marijuana processing; a shrine for religious worship; a dump site for garbage and feces; and lookout posts for the well-armed guards that protect the crop.

"It's like they all attended the same Marijuana 101 class," Mark says. More impressive is the horticultural sophistication the growers demonstrate. They clone the plants to achieve maximum potency. They terrace and irrigate the terrain, sometimes by diverting streams or drilling wells. They trim the overhead foliage to allow maximum sunlight to reach the plants, while retaining enough for camouflage. To the Forest Service special agents who have been tracking the activities of growers for several years now, it seems clear that the various cartels have staked out particular forests or regions within forests for themselves. As one investigator describes it, "it's as if a group of them sat around a map of California and said, 'You take this, we'll take that.'"

From the beginning of the growing season in April to the harvest in September through early November, growers conduct their operations with the logistical precision of a military operation. The laborers haul in miles of irrigation hose, gallons of propane for cooking and pounds of fertilizer. Twenty or more armed workers typically work in a garden. Investigators have found that some of the growers previously have worked for contractors hired by the Forest Service for reforestation projects, Mark says. "These guys really know what they're doing," she says. "This stuff goes in as seed and comes out as processed marijuana a few months later. The logistics of it are phenomenal."

So are the physical demands on both the growers and the law enforcement officers who find them. Bradford Burns, a law enforcement officer in the San Bernardino National Forest, marvels at the ability of the growers. They have managed to cultivate bumper crops of marijuana, which requires a lot of water to grow, even in drought conditions, he says. "It's unbelievable how good these guys are at finding hidden springs, diverting streams, and even drilling wells in some cases." During one garden takedown operation last year, Burns says, it took law enforcement personnel more than five hours to hike a mile and a half to a marijuana garden because the vegetation was so thick and the terrain so rough.



The environmental effects of drug production can be devastating, says the National Park Service's Martin. In the last few years, National Park Service employees have hauled off tons of trash generated by drug producers - garbage, human waste, carcasses of poached animals, gardening tools and miles of irrigation hoses.

Last year, at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, park rangers investigating a massive tadpole die-off found marijuana growers had used a can of fertilizer to jury-rig a small dam to create a dependable water supply for a number of marijuana gardens. A flash flood had wiped out the dam, washing fertilizer downstream and poisoning the tadpoles.

In addition, Forest Service officials say that marijuana growers sometimes spark wildfires, not difficult in the West where years of drought have turned millions of acres of forest into a tinderbox. In 1999, when a campfire in a marijuana garden in Sequoia National Forest started a wildfire, firefighting efforts had to be delayed so law enforcement officials could secure the area.

Marijuana growers have terraced land, contributing to soil erosion, and have diverted water sources, disrupting the ecosystem of the forest. In one California forest, rangers discovered a 10-acre plot where all the trees had been stripped of bark, causing them to die. Apparently growers were trying to increase the amount of sunlight reaching their marijuana plants by eliminating overhead foliage.

The production of methamphetamines can have devastating environmental consequences as well. The chemicals involved include Freon, hypophosphorous acid and lithium metal - substances both flammable and poisonous.

According to ONDCP, 15 percent of methamphetamine labs are discovered as the result of an explosion or fire. When labs are discovered, buildings often have to be razed in expensive cleanup operations.

For the Forest Service, a shortage of money and people makes cleanup of most drug production sites, especially marijuana gardens, impossible. "We don't clean those sites up. We don't have the manpower," says Mark, who is frustrated that her agency can't do more to combat the problem in California. "It's only a matter of time before someone is killed here, either a hunter or a visitor or one of our employees. I reached a point where I realize I just can't do this anymore. The stress is too much."

In January, Mark will leave California, her home for more than 20 years, and move to Montana, where she will become the special agent in charge of all investigations for the Northern Region. She will miss the intensity of California, but she hopes to trade it for sanity and bring back a measure of job satisfaction she's been missing. "I'm tired. I'm tired of fighting. For some reason, we're not allowed to say we don't have enough resources."


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