May 14, 2003
Park's Pot Problem Explodes
Number of marijuana plants seized at Sequoia has soared. Officials say Mexican cartels linked to Mideast terrorists run the operation.
By Julie Cart, Times Staff Writer
SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. ? On the brink of the summer tourist season, officials here are confronting an ominous reality ? multimillion-dollar stands of marijuana tended by armed growers who have menaced visitors, killed wildlife, polluted streams and trashed pristine countryside.
Marijuana cultivation in the park has increased steadily over the last 10 years. Since 2001, however, the number of plants seized in the state's oldest national park has jumped eightfold.
The pot fields are financed by the Mexican drug cartels that dominate the methamphetamine trade in the adjacent Central Valley, drug enforcement officials say. The officials say there is evidence that the cartels, in turn, have financial ties to Middle Eastern smugglers linked to Hezbollah and other groups accused of terrorism.
"This is the most serious and largest assault on this park since we took control of the land in the 19th century," said Bill Tweed, Sequoia's chief naturalist. The park was established in 1890, one week before Yosemite was designated a national park.
"To have people out there showing up with AK-47s to greet visitors ? that's not how it's supposed to be in a national park. The premise of the park as a special place is now in trouble. So is the idea that you can put a 'fence of law' around a national park." He added that the park is "not immune from the ills of society."
The dimensions of the problem began to unfold last fall when park officials destroyed a marijuana crop valued at nearly $150 million scattered over remote mountainsides.
"Our belief is that the Mexican drug organizations have gone heavily into marijuana operations," said Ron Gravitt, special agent in charge at the Sacramento headquarters of the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement.
"The overhead is much lower than running a methamphetamine lab. They are taking the money from meth and putting it into expanding marijuana growing."
Most of Sequoia's marijuana stands are hidden in the steep Sierra Nevada foothills in the lightly traveled southwestern reaches of the park. However, large plots have been discovered a dozen miles from park headquarters. Sequoia and adjacent Kings Canyon National Park are managed as one park encompassing 1,350 square miles.
Dennis Burnett, Park Service law enforcement administrator in Washington, said crime has been on a "constant march" into national parks. Almost 60% of the marijuana plants eradicated in California last year were found on state or federal land.
Drug operators target these places, Burnett said, because they know there are too few rangers to patrol vast parks.
"We cannot keep up with the drug smuggling and smuggling of undocumented aliens that comes across the border through parks on a daily basis. We are aware of the connection with drug cartels. We had a ranger shot and killed last year ? that was a drug thing. It's pretty outrageous," he said, referring to an incident in Arizona.
Hiker Held at Gunpoint
In Sequoia, rangers said, visitors have encountered pot growers. One hiker was held at gunpoint briefly by armed growers, said Al DeLaCruz, Sequoia's chief law enforcement officer. In 2001, hunters in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in the northern Sierra reported to rangers that they had been menaced by armed pot harvesters.
Park officials said rangers will be stretched thin this summer, searching for marijuana crops and taking care of visitors during the park's busiest season. Tweed said that, because more rangers would be deployed to deal with the marijuana problem, there would be fewer patrolling park roads and campgrounds.
When rangers raid pot gardens in the park, they routinely find filthy work camps with makeshift kitchens, latrines and trash dumps in areas designated as wilderness. Biologists report fish die-offs and water contamination from fertilizers, pesticides and poisons used by growers. DeLaCruz and other rangers said marijuana cultivators are killing deer and other animals.
The way to most of the pot fields is along the road to Mineral King along the southwest border of the park, an area rangers now archly refer to as Marijuana King. The road, a car and a half wide, is only intermittently paved. It is on this stretch, at this time of year, that early morning drops take place ? Mexican nationals piling out of a van or truck, strapping hundreds of pounds of gear on their backs and heading into the hills to establish camps and prepare the gardens for planting.
Authorities say the workers are mainly from the state of Michoacan. Eleven workers apprehended in last year's bust are still in custody in Fresno. None has been forthcoming with authorities.
"They never talk," DeLaCruz said, adding that the workers are paid well ? as much as $4,000 a month in cash ? and they are made to understand that the welfare of their families in Mexico depends on their silence if caught.
But based on statements from informants and wiretaps, officials at the state narcotics agency and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration said the Mexican cartels appear to have financial ties to Middle Eastern groups.
Hezbollah Tie Alleged
"We have a number of methamphetamine cases where we've made a direct connection between the Hezbollah and Mexican cartels," said Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the state's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program for the Central Valley and a former DEA agent.
The DEA suspects that associates of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah have been smuggling large amounts of pseudoephedrine tablets in cars and trucks across the Canadian border for sale to the drug cartels in California.
Last month the DEA and Canadian authorities arrested 65 people, including a number of Jordanian citizens, suspected of smuggling pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of methamphetamine, bound for California.
The state narcotics bureau has come to suspect that the cartels are using profits from the resale of the pseudoephedrine to bankroll the sharp increase in marijuana cultivation on public land.
The pot growers go to extraordinary measures to hide themselves and their operations. White sneakers are spray-painted brown or green, as are the handles of gardening tools. If growers cut a tree, the exposed stump is painted.
"You can be right up against a garden and not know it," Ranger Dan Abbe said.
The trails to the camps are often faint and treacherous ? the outposts are so hard to locate that DeLaCruz recently had trouble finding his way back to one of the gardens destroyed by drug agents last year. Armed with M-16s and 9-millimeter pistols, DeLaCruz and Abbe veered off a popular trail and bushwhacked up a steep hillside.
Low-slung oaks and stout mountain mahogany formed a canopy over the chaparral-covered foothills. The natural camouflage, along with the soil and climate, provide ideal conditions for growing high-quality marijuana, which sells for $4,000 to $8,000 a pound.
The rangers scrambled upward and after 10 minutes arrived at a level shelf of packed dirt. Trash was strewn everywhere ? empty cans, torn packets of noodles, a crusty leather rifle scabbard. A soggy sleeping bag was stuffed behind a tree.
Abbe said the site was a staging area, a place for newly arrived workers to rest before pushing up the mountain to the camps. Animals had been here, rummaging through the shallow garbage dump.
Supplies Dropped In
This was also where supplies were dropped every eight to 10 days during the marijuana season, from planting in April to harvest in September and October.
About 2,000 feet higher and across a rushing stream, the rangers came to the remains of one of the camps discovered during last year's seizure of the $150-million crop. The rangers estimate that the 8 tons of marijuana found then represent only about 40% of the pot being grown in the park.
Like the staging area below, the camp was strewn with garbage. A blue plastic bag contained dish soap and deodorant. A towel hung from an oak branch. Disposable razors and toothbrushes were tucked into twine wound around tree trunks. Bottles of herbicide and bags of fertilizers were heaped to one side. Raw potatoes nestled on spent coals beneath a grill suspended and tied to two trees. An empty bottle of brandy lay near crushed beer cans. A spatula, a lighter, scissors, miscellaneous clothing and unpaired shoes sat in haphazard piles.
"Nice, eh?" DeLaCruz said, waving his arm to take in the scene. "Welcome to your national park."