Two large marijuana gardens in Eastern Madera County, with a total of 15,600 plants, were harvested by the “good guys” Thursday morning, putting a small dent in the operations of at least one drug trafficking organization, often called cartels.
According to authorities, the plants at maturity would have had a street value of close to $20 million.
“These organizations bring labor into the area to prepare the site, often cutting down trees, do the planting, tending the grows, and eventually harvesting the plants,” said an experienced narcotics detective with the Madera County Sheriff’s Department, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
One garden near Miami Creek had 7,400 plants, and one near Lewis Creek had 8,200 plants, all in varying stages of growth. Both grows were on public land and although some growers have been apprehended this year, no arrests were made Thursday.
“These grows are a huge public safety issue,” said the detective. “It’s not just about marijuana, it’s about public safety. These guys are armed and part of their job is to protect the plants. There is always the possibility of a confrontation between the growers and someone out for a hike. These groups are very diversified ... pot is a very lucrative business for lots of people, and these plants are just another way to make large amounts of money along with selling firearms and human trafficking. And with all that comes violence, shootings and sometimes murders. Madera County is not exempt from these activities.”
On Aug. 7, an Oakhurst resident was shot and killed by growers using his property, allegedly through some sort of financial arrangement, to grow about 480 marijuana plants on his land.
The detective said growers also cause very serious environmental damage around their grows with fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, butane tanks, and large amounts of garbage. The poisonous material can end up in nearby creeks, often killing animals that drink from the creeks.
On at least one grow last year, crews came upon carbofuran, a dangerous smuggled pesticide banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009.
Kevin Mayer, a forest service special agent of more than 20 years, said he’s often seen in person how that toxic chemical, as well as many others used in cartel grows, kills off surrounding wildlife and trees.
“A spoonful of that will kill a tiger,” Mayer said. “It’s extremely deadly, it kills everything ... we’ve had grows near areas like Douglas Station Road where we see coyotes, birds, other animals all lying dead around the plants.”
When animals such as mice or squirrels chew on the plants for hydration, Mayer said, they become sick and are easy targets for predators, leading to the spread of sickness, birth defects, or even death higher up the food chain.
He added bears or other animals that are drawn to the grows, usually due to trash, are often poached as well.
“We’ve had mountain lions, bears, all sorts of animals killed,” Mayer said. “I mean a bear will come in at night to rummage through the trash, and these guys will set out traps and shoot it.”
This year 82,000 plants have been destroyed in the county, and the detective said there is a lot more out there.
These same toxic materials can also be harmful to the law enforcement officials entering the grows.
“By the time this season is over, we will have, again, eradicated more than 100,000 plants in Madera County,” the detective said.
More than 25 law enforcement officers from the Madera County Sheriff’s Department, the department’s SWAT team, U.S. Forest Service, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife were involved in the eradication operation.
Five teams of two officers were flown into the forest, dangling from a helicopter to destroy the plants.
The eradication effort came under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Justice, through the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP). There are four such teams in the state with the Central California boundaries running from Calavares County in the North, west to Monterey County, and south to Tulare County.
The program is designed to combat the cultivation of marijuana on public lands.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I originally had a goal of eradicating a million marijuana plants in the county and we have hit that mark,” the detective said.