Marijuana growers find cover on tribal lands
Mexican drug cartels take advantage of the vast, sparsely populated Eastern Washington tribal reservations for their marijuana-growing operations, law-enforcement officials say, and tribal members are not involved.
Seattle Times staff reporter
In the backcountry of the Yakama Indian Reservation, a handful of law-enforcement officers spent part of last summer searching for two things: marijuana and the people growing it.
Tribal police and officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were acting on a tip about a vast marijuana plantation in the forested highlands of the sprawling reservation. Such tips often yielded abandoned fields of cannabis, but none of the culprits.
But the team hit pay dirt last August by uncovering a grow operation with 8,850 marijuana plants, as well as the suspected grower, an armed Mexican national in camouflage clothing who federal prosecutors say had been tending the plot for almost four months.
Tribal reservations, some with hundreds of square miles of rugged backcountry, have become the front line for law-enforcement eradication of marijuana grow operations in Washington, says Rich Wiley, who heads the State Patrol's Narcotics Division. Growers are targeting the outskirts of Indian country for their marijuana farms, knowing tribal lands are sparsely populated and less policed, he said.
"The tribes are almost our first priority," Wiley said. "They have some very pristine and very remote areas with no roads or indication of humans. But [drug-trafficking] organizations can take advantage of that. They are preying on the tribes because they know the land is remote and suspect that there's some sort of legal cover there because of the jurisdictional issues."
24 tribal officers
The number of pot plants seized in Washington state has skyrocketed in the past decade, but the proliferation of marijuana grows on tribal lands has outpaced the statewide increase over the past five years.
In 2010, almost 82,000 marijuana plants were seized on Washington's tribal lands — nearly one-quarter of the 322,320 plants hauled in by law enforcement throughout the entire state.
The number of marijuana plants found on tribal lands last year was more than nine times the number seized six years ago, according to the State Patrol.
While some of that total could be attributed to stepped-up enforcement, Wiley said, the numbers don't paint the full picture because not all tribes report pot seizures to the State Patrol.
Harry Smiskin, tribal chairman of the Yakama Nation, is at Washington's epicenter for marijuana production. In the past five years, more than 500,000 pot plants have been found on the reservation — more than any other tribe in the state, according to State Patrol numbers.
In 2008, the high point for pot seized on the reservation, Yakama Tribal Police and a collaborative drug task force recovered more than 204,000 marijuana plants at more than two dozen grow sites, according to the State Patrol. The State Patrol could not say whether there were any arrests.
"With the size of our reservation, there currently isn't adequate manpower just to patrol it. I'd equate it with the U.S. Border Patrol problem," Smiskin said. "They have X amount of miles and only so many officers. We're in a similar situation."
Only 24 tribal officers monitor the more than 2,000 square miles of the Yakama reservation — roughly the land area of Delaware — which encompasses thousands of acres of forest, a mountain pass and an expansive valley. Growers often sneak into areas only tribal members have access to, Smiskin said.
According to court documents, officers found Jesus Gonzalez-Gonzalez last August after they hiked for more than half an hour on an old logging road posted with a sign that read: "Yakama Indian Reservation — Road Closed to Public — Except by Permit from the Yakama Tribal Council."
Washington is home to 29 federally recognized tribes whose reservations cover more than 8,000 square miles of land, according to the 2000 Census. The Yakama, Colville, Spokane and Quinault reservations are feeling the brunt of outdoor marijuana grows, according to the State Patrol.
Because each reservation is a sovereign nation, outsiders must receive tribal permission to go on the land and conduct busts. In recent years, tribal police have been working with outside law enforcement to eradicate marijuana.
Drug cartels move in
Dave Rodriguez, director of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, a group that pairs 14 counties with dozens of international, federal, state and local drug-enforcement agencies, says there's been a dramatic uptick of drug cultivation onto Pacific Northwest soil since about 2000.
In 2010, Washington ranked fourth in the country for outdoor marijuana cultivation, according to the DEA. Marijuana trafficking is a problem on Indian land across the nation, said the DEA, but the problem is particularly acute on reservations in the Pacific Northwest and California because of the climate and proximity to Mexico and Canada.
Law-enforcement officials say Mexican drug cartels are responsible for many of the grow operations found on reservations.
"We've gotten better at border interdiction," said Rodriguez, citing the ramped up security at the Canadian and Mexican borders since the Sept. 11 attacks. "Years ago, the cartels would smuggle B.C. Bud and Mexican marijuana across the border, but now they're bypassing the border altogether."
It's easier, less dangerous and more profitable for cartels to grow closer to their market, Rodriguez says. Washington soil is conducive to cultivating higher quality, and therefore more expensive, pot.
Officials say none of the grow operations uncovered by law enforcement has been tied to tribal members.
"At some point in the distant past we may have prosecuted a Native American for 50 or 100 plants," said Mike Ormsby, U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, who prosecutes the growers of large outdoor grows in the east of the state, where the Yakama, Colville and Spokane reservations are located. "But on these large outdoor grows, there has never been any tribal member tied to those grows, indicted or suspected as a person of interest."
Growers hike to remote spots of the reservation that have water sources and heavy tree cover to hide their plots from patrolling helicopters, officials said.
Rodriguez said growers often are expected to remain at the sites for the duration of the grow season, roughly June until late August or early September.
"For them this is a business," said Matt Haney, chief of police for the Colville Tribe.
In 2009, Colville Tribal Police eradicated almost 30,000 marijuana plants with the assistance of various federal agencies, according to the State Patrol.
Haney said growers, using rubber or PVC piping, terrace hillsides and run miles of drip lines from nearby streams to water each plant.
Marijuana traffickers are wreaking environmental havoc on tribal land by leaving mounds of garbage, poaching animals, diverting streams and fouling waterways with pesticides, tribal and law-enforcement officers say.
Growers bathe marijuana plants with herbicides and pesticides, clear the forest floor, causing significant erosion, and poison streams and local vegetation, Haney said. Because workers live on the land, they leave behind significant trash and human waste.
The cost of cleaning up the blighted land is huge. The National Park Service estimates that, for every acre of forest planted with marijuana, 10 acres are damaged. They said it costs approximately $11,000 to restore every acre of cultivated land, according to a 2009 analysis by the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
The State Patrol's Wiley said his officers also have found guns at almost all the grow sites.
At the Yakama Reservation grow site where Gonzalez-Gonzalez was arrested last August, officers found two loaded shotguns and a loaded .22-caliber rifle, according to court documents. Gonzalez-Gonzalez also was armed with a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, according to documents.
He has been charged with two counts of manufacturing more than 1,000 marijuana plants and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime, according to court records. His jury trial is set for Sept. 12 in Yakima.
While charging documents indicate he's a Mexican national, there is no indication that law enforcement believes he's tied to a Mexican drug cartel.
Rodriguez said growers are waking up to the increased patrolling of Washington's tribal lands, and in some cases are moving their operations to Montana, Idaho and Utah. Plus, in the past two years, Washington's wetter and harsher weather has made cultivating marijuana more difficult, which also thwarts growing operations.
Haney, however, doesn't see the problem in Washington dying down soon. He'll see what this year's pot landscape looks like when he canvasses Washington's tribal forests in coming weeks.
"Until somehow we figure out how these operations are organized, we'll always be one step behind," Haney said. "We have to get into the organizations so that we can get ahead of them."
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