Recent eradication takes pot valued at $164 million off the streets
The latest marijuana eradication raids -- three days at the end of July -- put the number of eradicated plants in Madera County this season at more than 100,000.
Law enforcement officials moved to North Fork and O'Neals July 28 and 29 to continue their war on drugs following the largest private property marijuana eradication operation in Madera County history between Coarsegold and Oakhurst July 27.
The three-day plant eradication totaled 54,700 plants. The plants, if allowed to grow to maturity, would have a street value of $164 million. The three-day operation in the Mountain Area was part of "Operation Trident," a law enforcement sweep of Madera, Fresno and Tulare counties.
Planning for the 450-person operation began in January and was a collaboration between 21 local, state and federal agencies in the war against the Mexican drug cartels and their large-scale marijuana gardens throughout California on private and public lands.
The operation was coordinated by the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"These missions are a collective fight against organized crime," Sheriff John Anderson said. "There is no way one county can tackle this task alone. That is why I am grateful for the collaborative efforts exercised by a multitude of agencies working together with the common goal to eradicate organized crime from Madera County and our state. We have a problem and we are trying to do something about it."
The tri-county, three-week effort resulted in the eradication of 432,271 marijuana plants plus the seizure of 500 pounds of processed marijuana, 74 ounces of cocaine, 49 ounces of methamphetamine, 33 weapons and two vehicles. In addition to the recovered drugs and weapons, 97 growers were arrested.
United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced that 55 criminal defendants have been charged to date in federal district court in Fresno in connection with Operation Trident.
The defendants were charged with a variety of narcotics, environmental, immigration, and firearms offenses.
Cultivating more than 1,000 marijuana plants is punishable by a mandatory minimum prison term of 10 years, a maximum term of life in prison, and a maximum fine of $4 million. An additional 34 defendants arrested during Operation Trident have been charged with federal criminal immigration offenses.
The three counties' gardens also produced 15.5 tons of trash, 29 miles of irrigation line and 4,580 pounds of fertilizer.
"Marijuana grown in the Sierra foothills supplies the nation with marijuana," Wagner said at a Fresno press conference July 29.
"These criminals are armed and taking up residence in California. Growers treat lands merely as tools to grow marijuana and have reaped great devastation on forest land by dumping fertilizer and pesticides, destroying wildlife and leaving toxic chemicals behind. This is not only a threat to the environment but to the public."
Public Information Officer and Special Agent Michelle Greogry of the California Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement said growers are becoming more dangerous.
"This year there is a shooting almost every week during raids because the growers are told they have to defend the marijuana plants," she said.
Operating from North Fork Elementary School last Wednesday, heavily armed officers entered two gardens deep in the Sierra National Forrest above Cascadel Woods and on Peckinpah Mountain.
Due to the remote location of the gardens, about 20 agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Madera Narcotics Enforcement Team were transported two miles while dangling in pairs from cables 100 feet below helicopters.
After being lowered to the ground and securing the areas, the team began cutting down and bundling up the 4- to 6-foot tall plants.
At least two growers escaped arrest by scrambling further into the forest.
On Thursday, the team entered, again via helicopters, the remote portions of Church Ranch off Road 200 near O'Neals, where 18,000 plants were cut down. No arrests were made at that location.
A North Fork resident was drawn to the elementary school by the helicopters last Wednesday and was impressed by the operation. Asking to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by growers, he took a front-row seat at a picnic table in the shade to watch the helicopters coming and going.
"I'm impressed with the amount of resources and the cooperation of federal, state and local law enforcement working together in this effort," said the onlooker. "This is a hazardous operation with those men hanging under helicopters and dropping into an unknown area. It's no different than a military operation."
He said the large-scale operations are needed because "the efforts of the cartels operating throughout California are sophisticated."
"Unfortunately, the cultivation of marijuana in California has increased in the Sierra foothills and mountains," United States Attorney Wagner said.
"Marijuana growers are clearing large expanses of land, diverting natural water sources to grow super-sized marijuana crops, and polluting forests and streams with harmful and often illegal pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, to protect their lucrative crop, the growers often arm themselves with dangerous weapons and pose a danger not only to law enforcement but to recreational hikers, campers and other persons who use federal and state lands.
"The hundreds of agents and officers who participated in Operation Trident are to be commended for significantly disrupting the illegal cultivation of marijuana in our public parks and forests.
"We will continue our efforts to completely dismantle those illegal activities."