National Geographic News
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Under a blistering sun, the unit files silently through the forest's steep ridges and deep canyons. The 14 men wear woodland camouflage, carry assault rifles, and whisper into radio headsets. Their quarry: a small band of armed insurgents tending a million-dollar backcountry marijuana garden for international drug traffickers.
The setting for this recent skirmish in the war on drugs may sound like some faraway South American jungle.
But the raid, led by law enforcement officers of the United States Forest Service and a Shasta County Sheriff's Office S.W.A.T. team, took place earlier this summer along the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, a two-million-acre (800,000-hectare) backcountry in northern California 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of the Oregon border.
The sweep was one in a series of drug interdictions that has become routine for the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Forest Service. In the past eight years, the agency has found itself in an ongoing battle with Mexican drug-trafficking organizations that investigators say have moved across the border to carve networks of clandestine marijuana plantations into national forests and other public lands deep inside U.S. territory.
Agents estimate the street value of marijuana planted on national forests in California alone exceeds one billion dollars (U.S.) a year.
"It's an epidemic," said Laura Mark, a 25-year Forest Service veteran and assistant special agent in charge of drug investigations in California. "National forests and public lands are literally being taken over by drug trafficking organizations for the production of marijuana," said Mark, who is based in Nevada City, California.
The Forest Service faces a brazen and determined foe in Mexican drug cartels. Traffickers smuggle hundreds of undocumented Mexican workers; tons of agricultural equipment, pesticides, fertilizer, and food; and illegal weapons into backcountry garden sites during the four- to five-month growing season from early spring to late September and early October. (See sidebar)
Agents say the crisis has strained a law enforcement agency grappling with an aging workforce, understaffing, and budget pressures.
National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service lands and other state, federal, and private acreage from Hawaii to Kentucky have become hosts to an increasing share of the illegal gardens.
But no public land management agency has been more heavily impacted than the Forest Service, and nowhere is the problem more acute than in California.