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.