Mexico’s nimble drug cartels are leapfrogging tightened border security and establishing sophisticated marijuana-growing operations in North Texas and Oklahoma, law enforcement officials say.
"There is no doubt" that three big marijuana fields uncovered this month in Ellis and Navarro counties "have a tie to the border and a Mexican drug cartel," said a drug investigator for the Department of Public Safety. "They brought the tenders up here from Mexico to do the work.
"This is not Joe Bob growing some marijuana to smoke. These are professional drug operations," said the investigator, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.
The traffickers’ farming operations, known as "grows," have been an increasing problem on public lands in California and other Western states for some time. But it’s only been in the last two years that the cartels have started to cultivate densely planted plots in North Texas and eastern Oklahoma, law enforcement officials say.
Oklahoma officials got their first glimpse of the trend this summer when an aerial surveillance crew spotted "a buck-naked Mexican in red boots," bathing in a creek in a remote section of the Kiamichi Mountains, said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.
Police rappelled into the area from helicopters and found 30,000 marijuana plants spread around multiple plots in the forest, Woodward said. He said the growers used all-terrain vehicles and horses to access the site.
This month alone, sheriff’s departments in Texas’ Ellis and Navarro counties found three irrigated, fertilized and manicured pot-growing operations near Ennis and Corsicana.
More than 16,000 plants have been uprooted from the sites, said Duane Steen, an assistant commander of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Narcotic Service in Austin.
Last year, a 12,000-plant operation found in Ellis County was the first sign that Mexican drug cartels have branched out from smuggling marijuana to cultivating it in Texas, Steen said.
The Piney Woods of East Texas was where investigators usually found pot patches, Steen said. "The old operations were local: The guy grew up in East Texas and decided to grow a little weed," he said.
What’s being found now is on a different scale.
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"It’s not the number of fields, it’s the sheer size of these huge cultivations — 12,000 plants is a lot of marijuana," Steen said.