Massive pot eradication operation underway

For years, local and federal authorities have been trying to put a stop to illegal marijuana coming out of California. Last year they seized some 7 million plants, much of it is grown on public lands. It's even been found in national parks, including Yosemite.

In Mendocino County, officers have been training for a joint local, state and federal eradication operation. It is the largest series of raids ever conducted in this part of Northern California. Last week, the raids started and it was spearheaded by Sheriff Tom Allman.

"We're at a fork in the road and if we don't make an aggressive push right now to take back some of our public lands, then we may get to the point of no return," Allman said.

That battle to take back the land is increasingly turning violent. Last year drug agents killed two armed Mexican men at remote pot farms in Mendocino County.

"I've had people come to me and say, 'My family has hunted in the Mendocino National Forest for five generations and we don't go there anymore because every time we go there, we hear shots being fired around or people have literally walked into our hunting camp and said get out of here,'" said Allman.

And it isn't just hunters and hikers who are afraid. One man who spent years growing marijuana illegally in California's forests said, "Now, it's getting more dangerous. Especially because you begin to see what's happening."

He's a grower from Mexico who says an increase in violence drove him out of the business.

"They are killing and robbing people," he said.

So what's going on inside those illegal operations?

Ron Brooks, who leads a federally-funded drug task force in Northern California, says there is a connection between the illegal growing on public lands and drug gangs based in Mexico.

"It is not just the grows, there's got to be a network. That means facilitation of stash houses, of communications, people that rent the cell phones, people that drive the trucks, people that sell this marijuana at the wholesale and retail level. People that get the money bulk transferred back to Mexico, which is where the command and control is for many of these organizations. You're talking about a very big organization," Brooks said.

One man talked exclusively with the Center For Investigative Reporting and KQED. He was arrested, is now cooperating with law enforcement, and told us how the grow sites work. He is a man they call the "lunchero," or a lunchman.

"It's my responsibility to buy fertilizer, buy food and go to the people in the mountains," he said. "I've known other people who have had one lunchero for eight or 10 pot grows, but I've known other people who have 25 or 30 pot grows."

He works as a kind of foreman who manages the sites and frequently they run several sites as the same time. He says he works for a boss who provides the money to fund the grow operations. Those bosses run their businesses like independent franchises, but they aren't big enough to distribute the drugs all by themselves. So they rely on the cartels. The cartels distribute California marijuana and other drugs all over the United States.

"All of the Mexican cartels have people here: La Familia, cartels from Juarez, the Zetas. They all have people in the United States," he said. "The cartels know what to do with the drugs. They carry it to another state or city and distribute it. That's what they do."

Authorities say they can't directly tie the cartels to marijuana production here, but former DEA Special Agent Bill Ruzzamenti, from HIDTA Central Valley, says the connections seem obvious.

"The fact that California is now producing as much or more marijuana than Mexico should tell everybody all they need to know. Seven million plants, that's what we got last year in California. Those things just don't happen by happenstance. Foreign nationals in Yosemite National Park growing marijuana doesn't happen by happenstance," Ruzzamente said.

The former marijuana grower worries about what could happen to California, too.

"Sometimes people talk and say it's going to end up like Mexico. And this scares people. It scares me, that it will be like Mexico," he said.

While California is still nowhere near as violent as Mexico, evidence continues to mount showing just how big the pot crop has become in the state. The "Full Court Press" raids on public lands are expected to continue into next week.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

Copyright © 2023 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.