DOWN IN THE DRAW, shadows swallowed footing, and the big deputy behind me carrying a heavy M14 stumbled and slipped and nearly toppled over. Unseen but heard, a California Air National Guard surveillance plane buzzed overhead. We halted in a meadow bright with moonlight; a game warden with a brushy mustache and a 12-gauge shotgun took cover by a Douglas fir. Another man, wearing a balaclava and carrying an M4 assault rifle painted with what appeared to be a cannabis leaf, crouched behind a scrub oak. An earpiece crackled. We crept back into the woods, and the trail grew steep. In the darkness, we felt our way forward like blind men in a new room.
As the sky turned violet, there were signs of other men: a can of salsa, a camping cup, the smell of shit. Farther on we saw four black hoses running from a tarp-lined pit into the woods like snakes from a pond—the growers’ water source. It was now full morning, and we stopped. “I’ve raided gardens where they were still drunk on Patrón at 9 a.m.,” the man in the balaclava whispered. “They didn’t hear us coming.” We moved down a hill, then back up. And here, finally, were the marijuana plants: hundreds of them, scattered over the south face of a hill, dazzling green in the morning light. They were no taller than a man’s knee, with buds the size of bottle caps. The man in the balaclava pointed to a path winding into the manzanita. “It’s their camp,” he hissed. Then he charged into the trees with his M4 raised, screaming, “Policía! Policía!”
SEVERAL HOURS EARLIER, I had set out in the dark with a dozen cops from the Mendocino County SWAT team and various other branches of law enforcement, on a mission to raid a large marijuana-growing operation concealed on public land near Northern California’s Mendocino National Forest. Tough, stout men, they were equipped like Navy SEALs—night-vision goggles, Kevlar vests, assault rifles—but more accustomed to busting down doors than running covert ops. As we moved forward, many chugged liked steam engines over the forest’s corrugated terrain. Sending lawmen out on nighttime wilderness raids to reclaim public lands was a recent escalation in the war on drugs—and not a particularly safe one, considering the armed and dangerous quarry.
According to Forest Service officials, White House drug reports, and articles published everywhere from right-wing blogs to The New York Times, well-armed Mexican drug gangs were cultivating illegal pot farms on public land across California—many reputedly tied to bloody groups like the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. According to many of these same sources, they had moved north in the wake of 9/11, when tighter security hampered cross-border drug smuggling. In fact, scant evidence exists to support the cartel theory, but there’s no doubt that Mendocino’s woods are full of Mexican growers. They’ve been operating in federally managed forests throughout California since at least the late 1990s, and though some money and men appear to flow back and forth across the border, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration believes public-land pot farms are run by small, independent Mexican drug gangs based in the U.S., often using illegal immigrants for labor.
These drug-trafficking organizations—DTOs, in DEA lingo—are responsible for much violence and environmental damage in the Golden State’s backcountry. Over the past decade or so, illegal growers in various parts of the state have taken Bureau of Land Management biologists hostage and fired on hikers and sheriff’s deputies. According to media reports, they’ve also fired on park rangers, game wardens, and kayakers. In 2010, more than 4.5 million marijuana plants were grown on federal land, the vast majority of them in California. The crop was worth approximately $11 billion on the street—the annual GDP of a midsize former Soviet satellite state.
In no place is the situation worse than around the Mendocino National Forest, which is home to probably dozens of illegal pot farms at any given time. Long and narrow like a giant chile pepper, the “Mendo” contains almost a million undefended acres that abound with readily accessible water, south-facing slopes, and good roads and nearby highways for easy transport. In 2010, authorities found huge quantities of marijuana in the environs around Mendocino County—which encompasses a large swath of the forest, BLM land, Indian reservations, and towns like Willits, Ukiah, and Fort Bragg—than the DEA found in more than 35 other states combined: over half a million plants worth nearly $1.5 billion.
The potential for so much profit has made the backcountry contested territory, with growers menacing deer hunters and firing warning shots at ranchers. In 2006, Robert Corey Want and Ivan Tillotson, Jr., two members of a local Native American tribe, were shot to death by Mexican growers cultivating a pot farm on the tribe’s reservation. Two years later, in Lake County (which covers part of the Mendocino forest), a county supervisor named Rob Brown discovered two acres of hidden gardens—including one that had been booby-trapped with sharp punji sticks—scattered about his 300-acre property.
Many fearful locals have simply abandoned long-cherished trails and camping spots, and deadly firefights between growers and Mendocino cops have increased. In July 2010, a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a 24-year-old grower named Angel Hernandez-Farias during a raid in the woods. Three weeks later, Mendocino deputies raided another remote garden and killed a grower wielding a rifle. Two more growers were killed during raids in nearby counties that summer, an unprecedented level of violence in what had once been a peaceable enclave of hippies, pear farmers, and mountain recluses.