Mexican marijuana growers are poisoning Sierra with banned pesticide, task force says

Law enforcement officials on Tuesday announced a major operation underway targeting illegal marijuana-growing sites in the Sierra Nevada allegedly being operated by Mexican citizens who are using a pesticide banned in the United States.

U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott announced Forest Watch 2, a repeat of an operation undertaken last year. Scott was joined by nearly a dozen federal, state and local officials who have teamed for the investigation and eradication of marijuana-growing sites in the mountains.

The news conference announcing the operation came just 48 hours after two men from Michoacan, Mexico, were caught operating an illegal marijuana-growing site near Dutch Oven Creek east of Bass Lake. Lester Eduardo Cardenas Flores and Luis Reyes Madrigal were formally charged Tuesday in Fresno federal court with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute large quantities of marijuana.

Agents from the U.S. Forest Service raided the site on Aug. 19. At least three men were seen in the area but only the two were caught after a chase. Agents found a camp kitchen with a gas stove, propane tank and cooking utensils as well as food.

The camp had a marijuana-processing area and eight separate marijuana plots in an area nearly half a mile long, according to the federal complaint. About 7,000 marijuana plants were found at the site.

Toxic discovery

Also at the site was a bottle of carbofuran, a pesticide banned by the U.S. for risk that it causes permanent damage to human nervous and reproductive systems and is toxic to wildlife and waterways.

Marijuana-growing sites linked to Mexican nationals have been an issue for years, but U.S. Attorney Scott said the increasing use of the chemical adds to the urgency of shutting them down. Mourad Gabriel from the Integral Ecology Research Center said 90% of all marijuana sites discovered in the state last year contained evidence of carbofuran use, compared to about 12% of sites in 2013.

U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, center, describes illegal marijuana groves he viewed in the Sierra National Forest in Madera Countyduring a press conference announcing the formation of efforts to combat illegal marijuana grows on public land Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019 in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

“That’s a game-changer,” Scott said. “It has made the situation far more dangerous, far more toxic and far more environmentally hazardous to all of us.”

Gabriel said the site discovered recently in Madera County contains fragile wildlife that is at greater risk due to exposure to the chemical in the area. There have been no documented deaths from carbofuran, according to officials who spoke Tuesday, and the research on the pesticide’s entire effects still appears to be insufficient.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of carbofuran on food crops.

Gabriel also reported that 5.4 million gallons of water from streams above the cultivation site were diverted to grow the marijuana.

He said cleanup for a year’s worth of illegal marijuana-growing sites costs at least $1 million.

During the news conference, law enforcement officials suggested lawmakers should prioritize protecting the environment and ecosystems from the illegal growing sites as well as addressing border crossings that are tied to marijuana cultivation in the state.

Scott said that every person arrested at a marijuana-growing site in the Sierra has been of Mexican descent. He also said U.S. citizens have been arrested off the sites for aiding the cultivation.

Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney, one of several sheriffs who have committed their support to the operation, said at the news conference, “As long as we have an unregulated border,” the problem will continue.

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Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a journalist at The Fresno Bee. He covers the people and places experiencing economic and social inequity for The California Divide media collaboration. He grew up in the southern San Joaquin Valley and has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Fresno State.