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U.S. Forest Service land is increasingly fertile ground for pot plants grown by Mexican cartels

Media references to Mexican drug cartels are invariably followed by some variation of the phrase "spill over into this country." Those five words are key to the flak currently being sent up by the federal government—most recently by Janet Napolitano, former Arizona governor and now head of the Department of Homeland Security.

She wants you to believe the feds have a plan to respond should Mexican cartel violence "spill over into this country."

Spill over? It's already here, in our border communities, as well as in the 230 cities across the nation where the cartels are active. The wave of home invasions in Tucson and the kidnappings in Phoenix aren't the result of Tupperware parties gone bad.

Even our public lands are being hit, especially in the Tonto National Forest around Payson, 90 miles northeast of Phoenix.

Between 2006 and 2008, the Gila County Narcotics Task Force took down 43 pot farms, eradicating 82,904 marijuana plants, says Task Force commander Johnny Sanchez. All but a handful were on Tonto land.

All of the farms larger than 1,000 plants were apparently operated by Mexican drug organizations. The workers are usually Mexican nationals brought across the border for that purpose. They might arrive at a grow site in April and live there until harvest in October.

These men are considered "high-value assets," according to a Forest Service criminal investigator who asked for anonymity. They're generally from rural, marijuana-growing areas in Mexico, such as Michoacán, which means they're experienced in the drug trade and capable of surviving outdoors.

But at harvest time, the cartel acquires additional workers, sometimes by kidnapping them off the streets of Phoenix and hauling them to Payson to work off smuggling debts. Others are brought across the border on the promise that they'll be set up with some unnamed job. They're driven out to the forest and—only then—told of their new "employment." The forest investigator says these "farm workers" are often armed. Gunfire has erupted in the Tonto at least twice.

In September 2005, bear hunters approached a pot farm along Deer Creek, in the Mazatzal Wilderness, and were fired upon by cartel guards. The hunters returned fire and retreated to notify police.

The following year, a Forest Service tactical team raided a site in the same area and took fire from a guard carrying a semiautomatic rifle. Two men were arrested, and one escaped. The rifleman, a Mexican national who was shot in the abdomen, was eventually sentenced to 18 years in prison.

The investigator worries about possible encounters in which ordinary Americans trying to enjoy the outdoors could accidentally walk into trouble.

"If you're a hiker or a hunter carrying a gun, and you stumble into one of these areas, and they mistake you for somebody else, shooting can easily erupt," says the investigator. "I wish I could tell you it's not dangerous, but I can't."

In 2007, officers found a grow site a mile and a half from a Boy Scout camp 12 miles north of Payson. A Scout leader out hiking spotted the marijuana and notified police.

Cartel workers live in camps consisting of canvas tarps for shelter or branch lean-tos set against a canyon wall. They eat rice and beans cooked on camping stoves and get resupplied by men who march in with backpacks full of provisions.

The farms, usually at ravine bottoms or on hillsides, are irrigated by gravity-fed piping systems connected to natural springs or waterfalls as much as 5 miles away.

"These areas are so remote, it kicks our butts to get into them, and they usually hear us coming," says Sanchez, adding that guards sometimes rig access trails with trip wire strung with spoons or cans that rattle when disturbed.

So far, Arizona lawmen have not encountered booby traps, as has happened in California's national forests. About 57 percent of all marijuana grown on American public land originates there, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In July 2007, John Walters, then head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Washington Times: "America's public lands are under attack. Instead of being appreciated as national treasures, they are being exploited and destroyed by foreign drug-trafficking organizations and heavily armed Mexican marijuana cartels."

The Sequoia National Forest, in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, 350 miles from the border, has been a dangerous battlefield in the drug war. In August 2008, Walters visited Sequoia and said law enforcement had eradicated 420,000 marijuana plants in that forest in the previous eight years.

The first pot farms at Sequoia were discovered in 1998. The first raids on cartel-run grow sites in Tonto occurred in 2002.

But they've been found on other Arizona public lands as well. The Forest Service investigator said the Coconino Forest, around Flagstaff, eradicated 4,200 plants in 2008.

No farms have been discovered in the Kaibab Forest above Grand Canyon. "But we had a dramatic increase in activity last year in Southern Utah," says the investigator. "If they're in Southern Utah, they're probably in Kaibab, too."

No farms have been discovered in Southern Arizona's Coronado Forest, either, due to the lack of water, says Keith Graves, former district ranger in Nogales, now border liaison between the forest and the federal Secure Border Initiative.

The Tonto gets hit hard because of its proximity to Phoenix, where drug organizations thrive. It also has good water sources; Highway 260, which cuts through the forest, makes for easy re-supply.

One advantage of growing marijuana in the United States is that it bypasses border security. But U.S.-grown pot also draws a heftier price because it's often a better grade. "And they're less likely to have to deal with competing smuggling organizations, so it's cheaper," says the forest service investigator.

But the farms take a big toll on the environment. Cartel workers cut down trees and brush, causing erosion, and divert streams to access water. They leave behind piles of trash, as well as human waste and even banned pesticides smuggled up from Mexico that can wash into streams after rains.

Task Force Commander Sanchez, who has worked narcotics enforcement for 20 years, expects the problem to eventually "spill over" onto the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache reservations, as well as other reservations well beyond the Tonto.

"I don't think this will slow down," he says. "We're not winning the war on drugs, I can tell you that."

More by Leo W. Banks

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