By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Monday, October 26, 2009
ORLEANS, CALIF. -- W hat does a tough Mexican army major barking orders in the outlaw hills of the Sierra Madre have in common with the laconic sheriff detective from the north woods of California who puts a marijuana sticker on his truck as a joke?
They are both professional weed-whackers committed to the cause -- the hard, dirty, difficult destruction of marijuana out in the fields, plant by plant. Mexico has the largest marijuana eradication operation in the world, followed by the United States. It is a downright Sisyphean task.
October is harvest time. Marijuana bushes as burly as Christmas trees are hidden between the corn stalks above the beaches of Acapulco, and the buds are swelling o n the steep hills of California's Six Rivers National Forest. There is also a thriving indoor business, almost impossible to find. The United Nations says 145 million pounds of marijuana was grown last year, with Morocco, Paraguay, Mexico and the United States the top-producing countries.
Here are two men trying to whittle that number down.
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Maj. Hugo de la Rosa is a commander in Military Zone 35, a wild mountainous region where they once produced the legendary strain known as Acapulco Gold, back when Pink Floyd ruled arena rock.
There are five full army battalions stationed here, and though troops render assistance during natural disasters, what they do most is search for opium poppies and marijuana bushes. It is an army whose enemy is a plant -- grown by ghosts. The farmers are almost never caught, and rarely arrested.
De la Rosa and his troops leave their fortified base in a convoy of five trucks -- like an occupying army moving through hostile territory. Earlier this month, a dozen mutilated bodies were dumped here, the killers leaving taunting notes warning soldiers to back off. The commander snaps at his turret gunner to look sharp.
Ten minutes outside of town, a man on a horse waves soldiers over and points to a new Volkswagen abandoned in the trees, always a bad sign.
"There's somebody inside," the cowboy says.
The soldiers pop the trunk, and discover a man, blindfolded, his hands and feet bound. Not moving. The soldiers jump when he begins to moan.
De la Rosa betrays little sympathy. He says the guy is likely a trafficker who crossed a rival. That's how he ended up in a trunk. "This is a dangerous place," the major says.
Four hours later, driving 5 mph on jarring, rutted roads, the convoy arrives at a gorge above a roaring stream. It begins to rain as soldiers slide through the brush and come upon an acre of marijuana planted among rows of corn, a common strategy to conceal the illicit crops from army helicopters and Mexican navy satellites overhead.
Drenched, the soldiers rip plants out of the ground by hand and stoke a huge bonfire. They are careful not to destroy the corn. That's the unknown farmer's only income now. De la Rosa guesses the field would have produced 600 pounds of marijuana, worth about $15,000 for the farmer. That is a rich man in rural Mexico. The same field of corn would barely keep him alive.
Who is growing the marijuana? "The people in the village, the guy on the donkey," the major said. "The mother? She is on the radio and warns them when we come. The sons work the field. The daughter cooks their lunch. The uncle organizes the harvest. The father takes the money. It is a family business."
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Sgt. Wayne Hanson is head of the marijuana unit for the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office. It is not the kind of job you take to win a popularity contest here.
As dawn lifts in northern California, Hanson is one of 16 agents from four state agencies rumbling through the Six Rivers National Forest in 14 vehicles. Hanson brings a bemused irony to his task. He drives a gray Expedition with a Humboldt County sticker on the rear window, a marijuana leaf superimposed over the name of the nation's unofficial capital of weed.
Hanson said he favors legalizing pot, for no other reason than he thinks it would put the traffickers who are ruining the forests out of business and force all the people growing it "to go out and get a job."
Hanson was mowing his lawn recently when he smelled marijuana. He peeked over the neighbor's fence.
"If a guy's growing dope and he knows I'm the detective sergeant running the marijuana program, it's pretty cotton-pickin' rampa nt, I think," he deadpans.
The air begins to thump, and a Hughes 500 helicopter lands on the road. The helicopter uses a rope to airlift agents, two by two, into a nearby marijuana grove on a steep hillside. Some agents yell wooo-hooo as they swing above the trees.
Hanson stays behind. The helicopter reappears, this time carrying 400-pound bales of marijuana. The smell is overpowering as the marijuana descends toward a long trailer attached to a pickup. Loose marijuana is falling to the earth. The helicopter returns with another load. Then another. "Uh, I think we may be exceeding the capacity of this trailer," the National Guardsman says.
"We'll just tie that puppy down," says Hanson.
The guardsman jumps on the marijuana, packing it down. Hanson produces straps, but huge buds are already scattering on the ground, each one worth hundreds of dollars.
There's so much pot that it's impossible to burn it all, so the sheriff buries it at an undisclosed location.
This job takes four hours and 30 trips for the helicopter. They add up the haul: 2,279 plants destroyed. The sweaty agents are sticky with pot resin that won't scrub off in the shower.
"Sometimes pieces fall off the truck, and people run out into the traffic to pick it up," says the guardsman, a veteran who fought in Iraq speaking on the condition that he not be identified. "Yeah," says Hanson. "It's like a Brink's truck with dollar bills falling off of it."