Letter from Mexico

Two men and their hunt for marijuana

Californian, Mexican search and destroy

Mexican army Maj. Hugo de la Rosa and his troops destroy an acre of marijuana in the mountains of Guerrero.
Mexican army Maj. Hugo de la Rosa and his troops destroy an acre of marijuana in the mountains of Guerrero. (William Booth/The Washington Post)
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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.

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