Friday, January 24, 2014

A Look Inside A Mexican Grow Operation

I spend a lot of time off trail. So do Mexican pot farmers (Narcos). Over the years I have run into numerous (>30) sites where these people have left behind their hoses and bits and pieces of things which indicated prior grow operations. They seem to be everywhere in the Southern Los Padres. At times I think these people know more about our forest than I do.

It alway starts with finding a hose.
As I understand it, the way these operations work is that the cartels select people (almost always Mexicans, as opposed to El Salvadorans or Hondurans, etc...) to perform this task. The reason for choosing a Mexican is that the cartels can keep an eye on these individual's family and therefore use them, coercively, as collateral for the servitude. The cartel will make an offer which really isn't an offer, providing a trip across the border, cash for supplies, maps, the seeds to start the operation, and a promise of payment to the family who stays behind. There is also a discussion of what will happen to that family should these services not be rendered satisfactorily. Invariably, these growers are desperately poor and have no other options. The cartels know this and prey upon those whom they can develop leverage over. This creates the conditions for a suitably motivated grower.

As I found out one cool pre-dawn on the Sespe, some of them speak english. This was the day I ascended Devils Heart Peak. I was still very early into that heinous day, taking a break after having rapidly descended Tar Creek to the Sespe. I was sitting on the creek having some breakfast when I saw some movement across the water. I stayed very still, thinking that I was about to see some wildlife. Instead what I got was a little hombre in camo pants with a cheap backpack hopscotching across the creek toward me. He was within only 10 feet of me when he about jumped out of his socks, seeing me. He spent a good two seconds doing what I had done with him, checking me for a weapon. He remained very anxious but asked if I had been there all night. No, I said, just for the past 20 minutes. He still seemed like a cornered animal but encouraged me to have a good day and quickly split up Tar Creek. For a while I wondered where the hell he'd come from, but now I think I know the answer to that question.

The grow site in these photos show the remains of the most elaborate of these operations I've ever run across. It always starts with finding the hose. In this case nearly a quarter mile of black vinyl water line snaked from an upstream pool (now bone dry). The downstream end of the hose terminated in a plastic lined, man-made catch basin (below).  Water was then gravity fed from this basin a short distance away to supply approximately two acres of cleverly camouflaged grow area. I say this with a bit of admiration because what this grower had done was manicure over 100 young manzanita plants, by trimming all but a single stalk, so that they grew straight up at a height of 6-8 feet, providing a light canopy which allowed just a bit of shadow for the marijuana plants while disguising the site from the air. 

Man-made, plastic lined catch basin. Cut branches laid over the hole disguised this from the air.

These trimmed manzanita cleverly allowed in enough light for the marijuana plants while allowing for some camouflage from the air. 

I found the actual campsite tucked under a scrub oak offering very crude living conditions for the grower. These remains included MiracleGrow, a sprayer, miscellaneous trash, a sleeping bag, a couple school backpacks, part of a propane burner and some cookware. No effort had been made to make the place anything more than barely livable. About 300yds away from the primary plantation I discovered more than 200 plastic cups filled with local soil. These cups were neatly arranged in a patch of sunlight and were clearly intended as planters for seedlings (below).

This valve was the terminus of the irrigation hose. The marijuana plants were watered by hand.

This cheapo sleeping bag had been blown or dragged away from the actual campsite and into the pot farm.

This is what remains of the grower's camp.

Solo cups used to start seedlings. He used local soil, and the 5 gallon bucket was probably used to haul water to the site, which was well away from the actual grow site.

Inevitably some of you will want to ask wether I carry a weapon when I go off-trail. The answer is, "Rarely." Carrying a weapon is a highly individual thing. I'm enough of a snob to think that most people have absolutely no business owning a hand gun, all while adamantly asserting my own right to the same. I have a range of hand guns and at times I have indeed carried, but only while solo hiking in deep dark places like the Dick Smith Wilderness, places where the wildlife is big and unpredictable and a lot of things can go sideways in a hurry. In that sense, I view a hand gun as a tool and something I have no intention of using... but I'm glad it's there for the "Just in case." factor. They say you never need a gun until you need one. As this subject pertains to stumbling into narcos, my feeling is that when two people with guns meet under these conditions it dramatically increases the odds that a confrontation will result, and those results could be deadly. For either side. Remember, these guys don't want to be seen and/or discovered, which creates dueling circumstances and choices for both involved. I lean to the side that says I should play it cool and act like exactly what I am, just a guy out for a walk who happened to run into this other guy. All that being said, these instances are each unique and unpredictable in their own way. I am convinced that the average drive-in campground is a far more dangerous place than the situation I described earlier. I am always prepared for that particular scenario.


  1. Thanks for sharing on the subject; this is a sober reminder of what takes place throughout the Los Padres each and every year. A problem of epic proportions; scarred land, damaged flora/fauna, endangered hikers, and increased gang activity all come along with the package. We have to be honest; the Los Padres is a vast expanse of land, and at present we lack the necessary resources to win the war.

  2. In the past 3 years I have probably wandered into about 15 just in the SMM. Its a very scary experience when they are still growing on site.

  3. Dev, Anonymous, Thanks for your comments. Ironically, decriminalization and eventual legalization of marijuana would pretty much eliminate these activities. -DS

  4. I fully agree there. In the SMM, one of the biggest side effects of the growing has been the poisons used along with them. One startling figure from Malibu Creek State Park found 90% of the Bob Cats had rat poison traced to a pot grower in their system. Really unfortunate stuff, thankfully it has certainly declined in recent years in my neck of the woods. If you get a chance, NPR did a story a week ago about legal grows are diverting so much water in the Green Triangle that Salmon runs are facing extinction because of how much less water there is and the run off.... :(

  5. We all hear a lot about the narcos and cartels, Mexican violence, etc. etc. But we only hear briefly about America's addiction to drugs. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind indulging in some grass every 10 years or so and when in my 30's used to do it more often. But as long as it is illegal and America has such a high addiction rate I don't think we will ever stop the illegal production and trafficking. Does it excuse the growers who in their own way are ruining the forest? No. But the solution has to be looked at from a macro level, not a micro one. David, you are a journalist in your own right and very brave for even venturing in to make this story. I would brave the animal wild life before I would brave the human wild life because. Be careful next time.