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Narcotics agents face constant fight to eradicate remote pot farms

August 16, 2009 |  1:33 pm

U.S. Forest Service rangers work with state and federal narcotics agents each summer to find and root out large marijuana farms that sprout in a March-to-October growing season, said Vicki Collins, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

This is the time of year when the biggest plants are found, she said.

"It seems like it’s occurring more and more on national forestlands,’’ she said.

Federal agents say the prevalence of pot farms is tied to Mexican drug cartels, which use forestlands to camouflage large operations. Low-paid workers are transported into the forests early in the season, tending large marijuana gardens throughout the summer.

Makeshift camps are often littered with propane tanks used to cook food. Collins said the La Brea fire is the first she can recall that was started by a campfire used by drug growers.

Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Horne said growers prefer propane because open fires or barbecues send up smoke that can identify their positions. The growers typically are armed to ward off would-be thieves, and are viewed as potentially violent, said Horne, a 10-year veteran of the narcotics unit who has spent the last few weeks confiscating plants in a different part of the Los Padres National Forest.

This summer, agents patrolling Los Padres confiscated weapons that included a .22 rifle, a .38 handgun and an AK-47, Horne said.

"I can’t remember a garden where we didn’t find some evidence of weapons,’’ he said. "They are involved in the drug trade, which is inherently violent."

Ventura County’s squad has pulled 50,000 plants in forest locations and is on track to eradicate 20,000 more before the season’s end, Horne said. That would be a record for the Sheriff’s Department, he said.

Federal drug agents last fall eradicated nearly 3 million plants across the nation, a record haul that represented a 25% increase over 2007. More than two-thirds of the pot was found in state and national forests and other public lands, authorities said.

In recent weeks, narcotics agents have spread out to intercept operations in deeply forested areas across the state. More than 10,000 plants were pulled from the San Bernardino National Forest in early July. The suspects fled and could not be located.

A few weeks later, agents arrested dozens of people and seized weapons at multiple sites in the Sierra foothills east of Fresno. They destroyed tens of thousands of pot plants, according to the Fresno Bee. One camp had 8,393 plants with a street value of $3.3 million, the report said.

-- Catherine Saillant