PALMDALE, Calif. — Being followed when they leave the house. Being shown pictures of a bullet-ridden truck with a person still inside. Encountering aggressive drivers on roads. Having illegal grow houses next door. Having water stolen from their farms. These are some of the examples of what northern Los Angeles County residents say they have experienced by the people who are running illegal marijuana farms.
The residents, close to a dozen, gathered on Tuesday to share their stories and to hear an update on law enforcement taking action against the drug-growing operations. They all wanted to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the cartels.
Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) and Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told the meeting when they each did an air tour of the areas in north L.A. County, they realized it was as bad as what they had been told. The problem has been persistent for a while, but it gained major steam within the last year.
"We did a survey way back in 2020, during the [COVID-19] pandemic...150 illegal grows, the ones you can count easily from the air. So when we did it again this year, that number grew to 500 in one year. So there was a noticeable shift in acceleration," Villanueva explained, adding the illegal dispensaries are outnumbering the legal businesses 50-1.
In neighboring San Bernardino County, Villanueva said law enforcement there counted over 860 illegal marijuana farms when they conducted their own survey.
In June, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration launched an operation to destroy the illegal pot farms and confiscate the plants. With the operation lasting ten days, Villanueva said they only were able to knock out around 40 percent of the known illegal marijuana farms. Around $1.2 billion in street value marijuana was seized and over 90 firearms were confiscated.
Villanueva said while they have the manpower, the will, and the plans to continue combatting the illegal growing operations, the constant issue is funding. The increase in cartel activity in northern L.A. County is occurring at the same time as violent crime is rising in the metropolitan areas and the sheriff's department is operating with 145 million fewer dollars in its budget.
With the massive number of illegal farms, their biggest issue is the same as anyone who lives in the desert climate: water. Each plant requires three gallons of water per day, leading the cartels to steal water from residents and farms.
"I have, within a mile, probably four or five [illegal pot farms]. They've been busted a few times...they're outside, they're not in houses," one resident told me, adding it's not the drug that's the issue, "it's the people behind the drug."
"Everything they're doing to the environment and to the groundwater. They were stealing our water. They had a mile and a half waterline that went across the road...they were pumping the water out and our water company only services 35 homes, so once the water's gone, it's gone."
One couple described how, while hiking in the places they have hiked for years, one of the cartel workers approached and threatened them to never return to the area.
"He showed us a picture of a truck, by the way, they have pictures of us, they know where we live... He showed us a truck with three bullet holes in it and the guy was still in it. And he said, 'This is what will happen to you if you come back out again.' So we are always followed and they're always watching us... they watch us all the time," they said.
"We're not sure what to do at this point because we hiked those mountains for 25 years. We've hiked those mountains numerous times, never been bothered... now we can't even do anything," they added. "We're scared. We go out to our yard, they're right there!"
They said while they do not have a problem giving the information over to law enforcement, they are worried the cartels will find out where the information came from and kill them.
Another resident said the issue they run into with reporting the illegal farms is that there are so many that law enforcement puts them on a list and they do not know which ones are a priority to get rid of. Villanueva said he prioritizes the farms that are nearby the residential areas along with loosening the "may-issue" requirements for residents to obtain concealed carry firearm permits so they can better protect themselves.
Garica promised the residents that everyone from the city to the federal level is still committed to putting pressure on the cartels who run the farms but acknowledged "this is the wild west again."
Garica told me he believes part of the reason why the expansion of illegal pot farms got out of hand is because officials viewed the product as harmless but did not factor in those who operate the farms. He also said the increase in illegal grows and cash going to the cartels is a byproduct of the current crisis at the southern border.
"Right now what the cartels have in the local areas now: unlimited resources, a zero-cost basis crop, and they've got effectively free indentured labor and the bench for that is extremely deep. Basically, an unlimited employee base to tap into as these borders are open," he said, noting they are around 200 miles north of the border and yet the cartels are operating with a lot of freedom in his district.
"We're done with it. This is not going to happen anymore," is what Garica said his message is to the cartels.
Villanueva told the meeting many of the workers they took into custody during the operation were in the country illegally and some had come to the United States only a week before. While he said he does not get involved in immigration enforcement, he did say the border needs to be secured to stem the "steady supply" of workers coming into the country illegally to work the farms.