Busted!

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TODD BIGELOW/AURORA FOR TIME

Going In: At dawn, Rangers search for a marijuana farm in Tahoe National Forest

A blue-gray dawn tickles the tops of the ponderosa pines at the Sugar Pine Recreation Area in California's Tahoe National Forest. Campers slumber in lakeside tents; bikers have yet to hit the trails. But all is not quiet on this cool July morning. A platoon of camouflaged figures equipped with rifles, pistols and bulletproof vests creep through manzanita brush with a police dog. Their objective: a marijuana plantation a few hundred yards from a well-traveled tourist area.

As the Forest Service rangers stealthily approach, an unsuspecting Mexican laborer named Pedro Villa García, 51, stands in a clearing. All around him the hillside is freshly terraced, irrigated by black plastic hoses and dotted with iridescent green cannabis. Villa García peers down the path. Is that a black bear—a common local species—emerging from the morning mist? Suddenly he sees the rangers and dashes off through the brambles. But the police dog, a Belgian Malinois, catches up quickly, sinking its teeth into Villa García's arm. Two rangers wrestle him to the ground and handcuff him. "We're good at jungle warfare," says Laura Mark, a Forest Service investigator, as she prepares to question the suspect. "We're the ninjas of the woods."

Armed combat is hardly what families hope to encounter as they head for their summer vacations in America's national parks and forests. But drug smugglers, methamphetamine cooks and cannabis cultivators are invading federal lands as never before. A U.S. Park Service ranger in Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was gunned down by a Mexican pot smuggler last August. In Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest, 192 meth labs have been dismantled over the past three years. And marijuana farms are infesting Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest and Alabama's Talladega National Forest.

But the most explosive conflicts—and the biggest hauls—are taking place in California. As enforcement tightens along U.S. borders, especially since 9/11, it is getting harder to transport drugs into America. So Mexican traffickers have turned to creating vast marijuana plantations Stateside, that much closer to their main customers. Thanks to a mild climate, rich soil and a lengthy, March-to-October growing season, California cultivators routinely produce 10-ft.-high specimens worth up to $4,000 each. Some of these California pot farms stretch over several hundred acres and have as many as 50,000 plants. Last year 420,000 pot plants with a street value of $1.5 billion were eradicated from the state's 18 federal forests, a tenfold increase from 1994.

In Sequoia National Park, renowned for its majestic trees, rangers confiscated eight tons of marijuana in a single week last September. "We have a tremendous influx of Mexican growers," says Ross Butler, a special agent for the federal Bureau of Land Management. "They are sophisticated. They have guns. And we don't know much about who they are."

Villa García is unarmed when he is caught in the Tahoe forest—probably, rangers say, because it is early in the season. If they had already matured, the 3,500 plants he was tending would have yielded some $8 million worth of pot—an investment worth protecting. In the fall, when scores of Mexican workers arrive to harvest and process the pot, shoot-outs occur between law-enforcement agents and camouflage-clad growers toting AK-47s. Sometimes the pot pirates mistake innocent tourists for thieves or cops. Last year kayakers on the Salmon River in the Klamath National Forest were held at gunpoint by traffickers, as were a hiker in the Sequoia National Park and hunters in Mendocino National Forest. Two years ago, an 8-year-old boy hunting deer in the Eldorado National Forest with his father was shot in the face by pot farmers. "If you are a hunter, a fisherman or a backpacker, it can be dangerous," says Michael Delaney, who oversees marijuana cases for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Northern California. "There's a safety factor for everyone who is out there."

Squirming in his handcuffs, the white-bearded Villa García looks more like a kindly grandfather than a drug trafficker. He says he has been in the U.S. poquito—only a short time. A stranger came to his village in the Mexican state of Michoacán and brought him across the border, along with four others.

One of them was with him on the Tahoe farm but managed to escape. "I did not know what kind of work it would be," he says in Spanish, adding that he was paid $200 a month. Villa García was arraigned on narcotics-cultivation charges, pleaded not guilty, and is in prison awaiting trial. His is a story federal agents know well after arresting scores of low-level gardeners, all undocumented, most hailing from Michoacán. "They don't know much, and they're told, ‘You talk, you gonna die,'" says Mark, who has questioned 60 such workers in the past year. "The odds of us finding the organizers are slim."

At least five Mexican drug rings are under investigation, some of them related to the Michoacán-based Magana family. In June 2001, nine members of the Magana clan pleaded guilty in federal court to narcotics charges and were given prison sentences ranging from four to 12 years. The Maganas have been tied to 20 large gardens with more than 100,000 plants in the Sequoia, Sierra, Stanislaus and Mendocino national forests. They also supplied workers for pot farms on federal land in Arkansas, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington. According to investigators, the Maganas and other groups have used profits from methamphetamine operations to expand into marijuana. They own gas stations, haciendas and million-dollar resorts in Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, Michoacán and other parts of Mexico. "They have tremendous networks involving legal businesses, money laundering and distribution," says Jerry Moore, the Forest Service's regional law-enforcement chief. "We arrest people, but new players move in."

Villa García and his Tahoe pot farm were discovered a week after two forest rangers on patrol noticed a recently bushwhacked footpath. After the bust, the rangers found the usual layout and pattern of cultivation. "It's like they all go to the same college course—Marijuana 101," says Mark. As in other grows, seedlings are planted 6 ft. apart in rows. A forest canopy admits filtered sunlight but hides the seedlings from aerial surveillance. A stream is diverted to allow its water to flow through drip-irrigation tubes along the terraces. So that the workers can escape more easily, their sleeping area—strewn with toothbrushes and bottles of Pepto-Bismol and NyQuil—is hidden in the brush, apart from the kitchen and processing area. Propane bottles provide fuel for a two-burner stove next to bags of tortillas, cans of Juanita's-brand menudo (tripe), sacks of fertilizer and a votive card of St. Peter with the inscription "May your spirit intercede for sinners …" in Spanish.

Rangers say that in March and April, workers are driven in vans along remote forest roads at dusk or dawn. They pile out onto prescouted paths with 100-lb. packs of supplies. Once they set up camp and begin planting, they are resupplied every two to three weeks. Throughout the summer, a skeletal crew tends the gardens, which are often divided into connected plots. In the fall, more workers come in to process the weed; one raid found 40 sleeping bags at a single site. The workers pick the flowering tops and hang them in nets to dry for up to a week. They peel off the buds, package the pot using scales and Baggies, and hike it out at night in duffel bags. At preset pickup points, vans await to transport the pot to consumers across the U.S.

Beyond the safety issue, the ecological damage from large-scale farms in parks and forests could take years to repair. Tree cutting and terraced slopes are causing massive erosion. In addition, the pot farmers leave a mess. At the Tahoe grow, 20 rangers and sheriff's deputies dug up the cannabis and stuffed it into paper bags as evidence. But propane tanks, coils of irrigation hose and food cans were left behind. "We don't have the manpower to get the garbage out," says Mark as she rips open plastic bags and tosses tortillas into the bushes.

Only seven drug-enforcement agents are assigned to police California's 20 million acres of federal forests. Rangers estimate that they discover as few as a third of the pot farms growing on public lands—and more than half of those are left untouched for lack of personnel to investigate them. When forest fires demand extra bodies, as was the case during last year's drought, even more cannabis is left to harvest. "This is a huge criminal enterprise, and we have so few resources to fight it," says Mark. "There are more growers than we know about or can deal with. We pick off a couple. The rest get away."