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For decades, drug agents and illicit marijuana growers have engaged in a delicate game of cat and mouse in the rugged, remote forests of the North Coast.

Authorities would swoop in to destroy a crop, only to find that the growers had faded into the wilderness.

But that predictable pattern has been shattered this summer in violent confrontations that have left five suspected marijuana growers dead in four Northern California counties in the past seven weeks. It is an unparalleled level of violence in the 20-year history of coordinated marijuana eradication efforts.

"It's not the way it used to be," said Mendocino County Sheriff's Lt. Rusty Noe, who has led that county's marijuana team for eight years. Two of the fatal pot field shootings involved deputies from his department.

"We don't want any more dead marijuana growers. But we're not going to stop doing our job either," said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.

Why the sudden escalation?

A complex set of forces probably are at play, authorities said. The theories include the increasing influence of ever-more-violent Mexican drug cartels, more aggressive law enforcement tactics and the sheer proliferation of large-scale pot operations.

The bottom line is that law enforcement officers, hunters, hikers, ranchers and others who frequent the backcountry are facing greater and greater risks.

<NO1><NO>"We're all just sick of it," said Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown, who has been subjected to illegal pot cultivation on his ranchland.

"I sleep with a 44-magnum pistol lying next to me," said Gary Gillette, 61, a Sonoma County resident who lives on 152 acres off Ida Clayton Road, about 25 miles northeast of downtown Santa Rosa.

He brings the pistol and a rifle when he walks on his land. He said he's confronted growers and pulled out three miles of drip irrigation line they'd put in.

Greater force also is being employed by local, state and federal authorities. On a raid Wednesday near Laytonville in Mendocino County, a task force of more than 60 officers served a search warrant on private property. A helicopter was standing by.

The result: a gun battle at one pot garden, a fatal shooting of a suspect at a second garden and the arrests of four people at a residence.

Allman<NO1>, the Mendocino County sheriff,<NO> said the operation reflected the greater reliance on intelligence gathering. In this instance, agents believed an organized crime operation was involved on the 574-acre property, called Mendocino Magic.

The two gardens they found were relatively small, with about 2,400 marijuana plants seized. But there was nothing inauspicious about the confrontation.

Federal drug agents monitoring organized crime have been warning local authorities that increasing violence surrounding the marijuana trade may spill into Northern California.

Sonoma County officials have begun treating marijuana eradication efforts like SWAT operations, Sonoma County Sheriff's Capt. Matt McCaffrey said. "Chopping plants" used to be a less dangerous operation, he said.

"These aren't the same marijuana gardens as 20 years ago," McCaffrey said.

The attitude of the pot garden tenders has changed, said Bob Nishiyama, head of the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force, which includes officers from the Sheriff's Office, city of Fort Bragg, Ukiah and Willits and the CHP.

They used to drop their guns and run when officers arrived. "Now, they hang on to them (guns), turn around and shoot. It's nuts," Nishiyama said.

Many still flee. For those who don't, authorities can only speculate what motivates them to stand up to armed officers.

"It's possible they're acting out with violence because they feel pushback from law enforcement," said Rusty Payne, a spokesman with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

As gardens continue to proliferate, so does the threat from poachers who try to steal a group's harvest, Payne said.

In the past, federal agents have had few fatal confrontations in the gardens, he said. "We haven't seen this," Payne said. "Five is a lot."

The agency runs a nationwide eradication program and gives money to local efforts, he said. Last year, agents with the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program destroyed 7,365,760 plants at 1,996 garden plots in California.

In comparison, the next largest operation is in Washington, where DEA agents found 573,792 plants.

"We believe that most of the growing that takes place in California and nationwide is managed by Mexican drug-trafficking operations," Payne said.

Apprehended suspects have said they're increasingly driven to protect the gardens because they fear the drug traffickers who hired them, Payne and others said.

Napa County agents have had two violent confrontations with suspected growers in the fields this season, said Gary Pitkin, who commands the Napa special investigations bureau. On a June 30 raid, a Fresno man was shot and killed near Lake Berryessa. Agents say Jose Luis Martinez Chavez failed to lower his weapon.

In Santa Clara County, a suspected grower told deputies that his bosses kidnapped him and forced him to tend the garden, said Santa Clara County Sheriff's Sgt. Rick Sung. He said they threatened to kill him and his family in Mexico if he failed to protect the marijuana, Sung said.

"It's human trafficking," he said.

Three men have been shot and killed in Santa Clara County's illicit pot gardens since 2005 during confrontations with deputies, Sung said. In the most recent case, deputies shot Jose Penaloza-Soto, 28, of East Palo Alto on July 21.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service game warden was shot in the legs in 2005 by one of three suspects at a 22,000-plant pot garden before agents shot and killed one of the men, Sung said.

Nishiyama, of the Mendocino task force, said he's aware officers are criticized when they shoot someone who has not yet fired at them, In all the recent fatal shootings, that was the case. But he said they can't wait for a suspect to take the first shot.

"If they already have a gun in their hand and that gun is coming in their direction, you don't sit there and let them shoot first. If you do, there's a good chance you're going to be a corpse."

New enforcement tactics employed in Fresno, Tulare and Madera counties by a multiagency task force has shown some success in making arrests without armed conflict.

Instead of focusing on eradicating the plants, the group, led by federal agents, used a sustained, large-scale operation in an attempt to apprehend and prosecute suspects, clean up the mess and process deportations, said Ray Greenley, an assistant special agent-in-charge with Immigration Customs and Enforcement who ran his agency's involvement in the operation.

Officers arrested 97 people during the three-week effort that ended July 30, Greenley said.

"That's the model that eventually we'd like to get to up here as well," Greenley said, referring to the North Coast.

"It's an issue of resources and staffing," he said. "But we're going to continue to expand upon (the model) as much as we can."

It would take many such efforts to make a dent in the number of large-scale marijuana operations, which can appear in unlikely places.

At a church camp west of Lake Sonoma, staff members have begun warning campers to stay close to the buildings and off the trails that wind through the 400-acre site because of clandestine growers.

"You can even hear them talking when the wind is right," said Michael Ginn, 53, a retired fire marshal who volunteers as camp administrator.

In Mendocino County, the public was warned to stay away from a popular Cow Mountain trail after five deer hunters were threatened Aug. 15 by armed marijuana growers who told them to stay out of the area.

The hunters noticed drip irrigation lines as they drove up Trail 8 near the Red Mountain Campground, said Gary Sharpe, an associate field manager with the Bureau of Land Management's Ukiah office. Two men confronted the group and told them to turn around, Sharpe said. A third man in a pickup stopped them and also warned them to stay away.

"If you see drip-line pipe, probably go somewhere else. Particularly around harvest time," Sharpe said.

That's advice familiar to those in Laytonville, a hub of marijuana growing and just a few miles from the most recent pot-field death. Marijuana cultivation is widely tolerated in the two-block town and surrounding hills, but no one seemed happy with the idea of Mexican cartels entering the mix.

"This is our land," said Dave Owen.

Laytonville firefighter Brice Davis said he doesn't believe the intruders would come onto his property, but he's prepared if they do.

"If someone comes on my property brandishing, I'm brandishing too," he said.

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