UKIAH, CALIF. — UKIAH, Calif. -- Sgt. Ron Caudillo of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department saw the change coming five years ago as he looked down an old logging road covered with 7,000 marijuana plants.
His experience in the most fertile pot-growing area of the state told him that the garden was not the work of any local doper. The scale was too big, the rows of sinsemilla too straight. Whoever it was didn't even spread out the crop to avoid discovery.
Growing marijuana in California was once the exclusive domain of native-born profiteers, flower children from the 1960s and enterprising potheads with a knack for horticulture. Not anymore.
But over the past 10 years, authorities say, domestic producers have been gradually displaced by Mexican traffickers whose squads of undocumented workers and paid pistoleros trespass onto private property and national forest land to plant marijuana on an unprecedented scale.
Today, authorities in many parts of the state believe that 80 percent to 90 percent of the cannabis plants they confiscate from outdoor operations belong to Mexican growers. Most of them, police suspect, have ties to Mexico's powerful drug cartels, which are steadily expanding their operations in the United States.
"Mexican nationals have been branching out into heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and now marijuana. They are just taking over everything," said Special Agent Bill Ruzzamenti, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration supervisor who has overseen marijuana investigations in California.
The trend is particularly troublesome for police and property owners. With the price of potent sinsemilla at a minimum of $4,000 a pound wholesale, the pressure to safeguard crops and get them to market has leaped.
As a result, the new growers pack more firearms than their predecessors, raising the potential for violence to protect their share of California's largest cash crop.
Federal statistics show that the number of firearms seized at outdoor marijuana farms in California has increased more than 25 percent from 423 to 550 over the past five years. Those weapons range from .22-caliber pistols to military-style assault rifles.
In Northern California, Mexican national growers have opened fire on competitors, timber company employees and law enforcement officers.
"It has turned into a real public safety issue," said Doug Goss, the land security officer for Louisiana Pacific Corp., which owns 320,000 acres of timber in and around Mendocino County. "There is a considerable threat to our workers, contractors and those who use our land for recreation, like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and churches."
Drug policy analysts say the entry of larger and more violent organizations from Mexico simply reflects the economics of the marketplace.
Demand for pot, particularly among the nation's youth, has risen slightly since 1990 after a decade of decline. At the same time, eradication programs have reduced supply, putting upward pressure on price.
Powerful sinsemilla, the type of cannabis predominantly grown outdoors in California, now fetches prices as high as $8,000 a pound in some parts of the country.
Two years ago, forest service investigators discovered a 23,000-plant operation in the Cleveland National Forest in east San Diego County that they believe was run by Mexican nationals. It was the largest plantation found by the Forest Service in the region.
Several acres had been cleared under a canopy of oak trees. The site, virtually undetectable from the air, contained a greenhouse, electric generators, water pumps and a drip irrigation system. The estimated value of the seizure was $92 million.
Police say Mexican growers have made their biggest gains in Mendocino and Trinity counties.
The area's intense sun, fertile soil and abundant water supply are ideal for cultivating potent strains of marijuana.
Earlier this year, Mendocino deputies discovered more than 100,000 seedlings and young plants inside 17 clandestine greenhouses built on remote Louisiana Pacific land. It was the largest single seizure of cultivated marijuana in California.
So far, Mendocino authorities have confiscated a record 160,000 plants for 1997, more than any other county and almost half of what has been found statewide. Caudillo estimates that 85 percent of the cannabis comes from Mexican national operations.
"They know what our manpower is," Caudillo said. "Informants tell us that these groups are trying to plant as much marijuana as it takes to overwhelm us."
Pub Date: 9/14/97