Contributor: Rick Devereux
Skamania, Wash. – Imagine for a second you are hiking a trail in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
You are enjoying the beautiful surroundings—excited about the possibility of seeing a bald eagle or signs of a black bear or grey wolf.
Instead, you accidently stroll into an illegal marijuana grow run by a Mexican drug cartel and guarded by three armed men. And these armed men are not happy you have stumbled upon their operation.
Mexican drug cartels are not restricted to border regions of Texas, Arizona and California.
These gangs wield a far wider scope of power than imagined, with operations spreading as far as Canada.
The cartels use Oregon and Washington forests to grow marijuana. They have quietly taken over miles of public land in the Pacific Northwest, creating a multi-billion dollar industry spanning across dozens of counties in Oregon and Washington.
The illegal grows are guarded by low-level, but heavily-armed, workers. And they are willing to fight to save the hundreds-of-thousands of marijuana plants. The workers use make-shift camps in order to be self-sufficient in the forest.
“It is very dangerous,” said chief criminal deputy Pat Bond with the Skamania Sheriff’s Office. “We’ve run into armed individuals up there. We’ve found firearms in most of these camps.”
How big are the gardens?
In one grow, deputies found at least 12,200 marijuana plants.
When deputies find a marijuana grow, they destroy it and arrest or deport anyone they catch. The workers, though, are low-level, and arrested them does little to disrupt the operation as a whole.
Deputies say it is impossible to patrol every mile of the national forest, even with airplanes and other technology.
Deputies say it is a never-ending cycle, with the big players reaping the profits thousands of miles away in Mexico.
The U.S. War on Drugs seems to be an on-going battle. It also seems to be one the US Government is losing. PBS has a timeline of “30 years of America’s Drug War,” including Operation Intercept in 1969 that was supposed to close the Mexican-American border from marijuana smuggling.
For a deeper understanding of the history of the Mexican drug cartels and their impact on the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations has great information.
The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times both have fantastic interactive websites dedicated to information about the Mexican drug cartels.
National Public Radio also has a nice interactive site showing the turf each cartel operates.
Los Zetas operates along the Eastern coast of Mexican. Made up of former military commandos, Los Zetas is well-trained in how to use weapons, and they are not shy about using violence to get what they desire. All cartels are able to get powerful weapons from the United States, including grenades, machine guns, sniper rifles and night-vision goggles. The Mexican police and even the Mexican army are ill-equipped to fight the cartels.
In July 2008, the United States Congress approved the Merida Initiative. The Merida Initiative is designed to give assistance to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean to help combat transnational drug trafficking and organized crime. The first phase of the initiative gave $400 million to Mexico to fight the cartels.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee published a report on May 18, 2010 titled “Common Enemy, Common Struggle: Progress in U.S. Mexican Efforts to Defeat Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking.”
The 45-page report concludes that “strong U.S.-Mexico cooperation is vital to our common aim of defeating the drug trafficking organizations.”
Shannon K. O’Neil, a Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies, has an opinion piece in the Council on Foreign Relations where she lays out how the drug trafficking problem goes beyond the cartels in Mexico and the users in the United States. She claims the Mexican government is corrupt and the U.S. gun lobby allows dangerous weapons to fall into the cartels hands. She also notes the Merida Initiative is the foundation of getting the drug war under control.