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Illegal marijuana production is surging on the North Coast and across the state as a result of rising dominance of Mexican crime families over the state's underground pot economy.

Scores of Mexican nationals are being sneaked across the border to grow, guard and harvest marijuana gardens inside California because tightened border security has crimped smuggling of Mexican-grown pot into the state, according to local, state and federal drug agents.

Mexican-controlled operations now account for as much as 70 percent of all the marijuana cultivated in the state's rural regions, including the North Coast, the agents said.

Although multiagency teams are only in the early weeks of their annual marijuana crackdown statewide, the estimated street value of nearly 1 million pot plants uprooted this summer already equals last year's record $4.5billion. The number of seized plants in Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties and the Mendocino National Forest account for about 62 percent of the statewide total.

"There's more marijuana than ever growing out there," said Sgt. Rusty Noe, veteran director of Mendocino County's local anti-marijuana growing efforts.

Noe said that in Mendocino County twice the number of pot plants - 181,370 - have been pulled this summer compared to last year. The largest operation so far was a 30,000-plant garden raided Aug. 10 in the Leggett area.

In Sonoma County, more than 70,000 plants have been uprooted this summer.

A three-day operation earlier this month near Annapolis on the Sonoma Coast netted 29,195 plants with an estimated street value of $51million, according to Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Chris Bertoli.

Pot production is soaring in Lake County, which topped out at No. 2 in the state last year with 133,441 seized plants . Sheriff Rod Mitchell said so far this summer 193,000 plants have been uprooted.

"We'll probably break 250,000 plants by the end of harvest," said Mitchell.

There's so much pot being grown in Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties and the Mendocino National Forest this year that the volume of already seized marijuana would have been worth $3billion or more on the street, based on state estimates.

Noe estimates that in Mendocino County up to 70 percent of current production is under the command of Mexican crime families, some with ties to the Mexican Mafia.

That mirrors testimony of state and federal agents who've told the Legislature and Congress in recent months that Mexican drug traffickers have come to dominate the state's illicit marijuana industry.

Agents say tightened U.S.-Mexican border security has prompted Mexican operators to underwrite the costs of growing, harvesting and distributing pot in California rather than face risks associated with conventional dope smuggling operations across the border.

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer said last month that Mexican drug traffickers are using marijuana profits "to finance the production and distribution of methamphetamine" nationwide.

Without the state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting - a coordinated effort involving more than 100 local, state and federal drug agencies - Lockyer said the situation would quickly worsen.

Noe and other drug agents described how thousands of illegal Mexican nationals are smuggled across the border into rural areas of California, where their sole purpose is to grow, guard and harvest marijuana.

Noe said the men are provided guns, food and campsites. They're paid up to $10,000 cash for their seasonal marijuana work, which typically runs from April through October, agents said.

Noe said that for the crime families, it's a less risky way of doing business.

"They've learned that growing dope in rural regions of California is cheaper than spending millions on ways to smuggle it across the border," he said.

As a result, the state's marijuana production has largely shifted from smaller gardens on private property to huge swaths of dope growing mostly on public lands, including Mendocino National Forest.

To date, 179,116 plants have been uprooted in the forest this summer. Mendocino Forest spokeswoman Phebe Brown said illegal pot production continues to be "a very big problem for us."

Marijuana is even being grown within Yosemite National Park, where a 10,000-plant plantation was discovered last fall.

The potential for big profits from pot gardens is being linked to an upsurge of violence this summer in marijuana country.

Two members of the Round Valley Indian Tribe were shot and killed June 17 during what Mendocino County authorities believe was a confrontation in one of a series of pot gardens spread across tribal, public and private lands north of Covelo.

The gardens were being guarded by five Latinos, four from Santa Rosa and one from Mexico. The men have been charged with marijuana cultivation, but so far no charges have been filed in connection with the killings.

After a 4,000-plant garden was found last week growing in the same general area, Mendocino Sheriff's Capt. Kurt Smallcomb said he believed the gardens were part of a larger operation funded by a Mexican crime family.

Marijuana growers and state experts say a single mature marijuana plant can produce a half-pound or more of high-grade pot. In the current underground wholesale market, a pound of pot can fetch $2,500 or more, according to state statistics.

Based on those numbers, 1,000 plants could gross $1.2million or more in the underground marijuana wholesale market.

Some marijuana advocates downplay the role of Mexican crime families in today's pot market.

Dale Gieringer, San Francisco co-founder of the California Drug Policy Reform Coalition, said he doesn't believe the Mexican connection is as ominous as portrayed.

"Some nationals come in, grow some dope and send home the money to their families. I think it's probably as simple as that," said Gieringer.

Gieringer said if marijuana were legalized, it would significantly lessen the huge profits and the presence of criminal elements.

But Noe and other drug agents said the takeover of the state's multibillion-dollar pot industry by Mexican crime families is real.

Noe said the Mendocino County agency has connected a string of illegal pot plantations in Mendocino, Lake, Trinity and Shasta counties to a single Mexican-controlled operation.

"We've uncovered evidence to support that at campsites and in the course of interviews with a few of the suspects that we've been able to arrest," he said.

He said multiple pot gardens are the mainstay of large-scale marijuana-growing operations.

"If one plantation in Mendocino is lost to drug teams, they're still likely to be growing marijuana across the county line," Noe said.

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