Fighting Drug Cartels in California’s Emerald Triangle

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LEAR Assets Management employs former law enforcement officers. Photo courtesy Lear.

When the blacktail deer population of California’s Mendocino County started to decline in the early 2000s, Paul Trouette began investigating why.

It didn’t take long to figure out. Mendocino County is part of an area of northern California, also encompassing neighboring Humboldt and Trinity Counties, that has been called the “Emerald Triangle” because of its production of cannabis plants.

Starting in the 1960s, busloads of hippies migrated to northern California’s redwood forests to tune in, turn on and drop out with the help of “weed”– Cannabis sativa.

But what started out as mellow recreation evolved into a billion-dollar business—accelerating with the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996 which legalized medical marijuana. A decade later, in 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64 to legalize recreational pot.

While pot legalization has been celebrated in many quarters, it has also engendered an illegal grow industry powered by criminal cartels that developed to meet the increased demand. And those cartels, which illegally operate on private, federal and state lands, have in turn destroyed the habitat of wildlife such as the blacktail deer.

Trouette, 55, a former commissioner in Mendocino County’s Fish and Game Commission who has lived in northern California all his life, decided to do something about it.

Photo Courtesy LEAR

Trouette created a company called LEAR Asset Management Inc. to patrol privately owned wilderness areas and engage in what he calls “Counter Trespass Operations.” Established in 2012, the firm employs 15 to 20 contractors who are mostly non-deployed counter drug military, and federal protective security, as well as active law enforcement.

They are contracted by corporate clients to protect privately owned forests and wildlands, and they also perform forest reclamations that are frequently funded by government grants. They are tightly connected with all local, State and Federal agencies in jurisdictions where they operate, often working side by side on operations.

“Deep in the woods,” he says, “We cut down trespass marijuana, arrest growers and scrub the environmental footprint produced by the backwoods drug trade.”

Some might ask why a private security firm is doing work that should properly be done by law enforcement.

Thinning Ranks of Law Enforcement

But the ranks of law enforcement agencies tasked with protecting wilderness areas— game wardens, and rangers working for the Forest Service, National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management—are due to budget cuts that began in the Obama Administration.

This international drug trade rapes the landscape. Criminal groups who are setting up illegal marijuana grows on public and private forests and wildlands are measurably adding to the increase in crime and violence in America’s wilderness areas—even as they wreak environmental damage

The growers cultivate pot gardens with thousands of plants fed by miles of black plastic irrigation pipes that draw water from streams, mix it with illegal fertilizer and pesticides, and produce plants whose street value is now over $1,000 each.

Each plant in these gardens uses about 6-15 gallons of water per day over 150 watering days; and so a trespass grow site with 10,000 plants diverts 60,000 gallons of water per day, or 9 million gallons in a season. Little wonder that legal growers and farmers are complaining about water shortages.

Paul Trouette. Photo courtesy Paul Trouette.

These growers are all armed. They arrive not long after the snow melts and stay on site 24/7 until the crop is harvested. And they are fueling violence. If growers from two different groups decide to grow on the same area, they settle the claim with guns, burying the dead in the woods. Illegal growers also shoot at outdoor recreationists.

In 2011, Jere Melo, the former mayor of Fort Bragg,CA who was then a councilman, was killed while looking for a marijuana plot.

Rich Russell, former commander of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s major crimes task force who has a current relationship with Trouette, estimates that about half of the county’s residents work in the marijuana economy. Some are legal, but many others are illegal.

Today, illegal marijuana gardens on both private and public wildlands typically have 5,000 to 30,000 plants. According to DEA Agents and the California game wardens, a cartel “owns” every national forest, national park, state park, and wildlife refuge in the state.

California has the most cartel-run illegal pot gardens, but they’ve been found in 20 other states and 67 national forests. The Emerald Triangle situation may well be a sign of what’s to come.

Weapon found at a pot trespass site. Photo by James A. Swan

Law enforcement agencies have made game attempts to address the challenge. In 1983, the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement established CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Production) to eradicate illegal marijuana cultivation and trafficking in the state. In 2011, Operation Full Court Press—a three-week raid carried out by CAMP —netted some 632,000 marijuana plants in and around the Mendocino National Forest, with a street value in the neighborhood of $1 billion.

California’s game wardens have also created a special tactical unit to eradicate illegal marijuana gardens, which I described in an earlier article for The Crime Report.

But they are now outmatched by the Emerald Triangle’s powerful cartels.

1.8 Million Pot Seedlings Planted Every Year

Grow areas are increasing, despite the best efforts of CAMP and the game wardens. It’s estimated that in Mendocino County alone, 1.8 million marijuana seedlings are planted every year. California’s legalization of pot has resulted in an even larger demand, which is being met by criminal cartels. The increased demand is associated with higher demand for marijuana, and cartels simply selling their crop in greater quantities and lower prices than at licensed stores.

LEAR Asset Management stepped in to assist Law Enforcement. They began patrolling private properties and that led to timber companies hiring LEAR to tackle the trespass problem. As time passed, LEAR has been accepted into interagency efforts.

“We don’t conduct vigilante activities,” Trouette said in an interview. “Our officers are licensed by the State of California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS).”

LEAR employees also receive certification from the California Department of Justice Rural Operations, and have received training by the elite Los Angeles Metro Police Department in Counter Terrorism response, he said.

James A. Swan

“We aren’t deputized—it isn’t necessary,” added Trouette. “We have arrest powers under the California Penal Code and our capabilities and working relationships with Law Enforcement are established. Our funding comes from government contracts and private contracts.”

In cooperation with federal and state law enforcement, LEAR has made a specialty of marijuana eradication, but the company also goes after wildlife poachers, water thieves and even fugitives

According to Trouette, LEAR Assets is the “only private security company in the U.S. that primarily focuses on wildlands conservation and protection.”

Are they the future of law enforcement in America’s embattled wilderness?

James A. Swan, Ph.D., is a Co-Executive Producer of the “Wild Justice” TV series and co-author with Lt. John Nores Jr. of “War In The Woods: Combating the Marijuana Cartels on America’s Wildlands.” Read his earlier op /ed for The Crime Report: “The Thin Green Line Could Use Some Help.” He welcomes comments from readers.

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