Mar 20 12 - 11:03 AM
(Salt Lake City, UT) - Notorious Mexican drug cartels have their tentacles in Utah, and the top drug enforcement agent in Utah calls it "the greatest threat to public safety."
"The traffickers made no money in Utah last year, and this is about greed," said Frank Smith, DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge of Utah. "If we can stop them from making a profit, they're going to go away."
But that won't happen right away, and the Smith warned Utahns to be cautious in the backcountry this spring and summer. He said Mexican drug cartels are developing and hiding more large-scale marijuana grows on our state's public lands, especially in southern Utah. Federal agents are waging a war against those cartels.
Dateline NBC's Chris Hansen tackled the topic last night on the program. Monday, KSL talked with Hansen and Smith about just how dangerous these farms are to the people of Utah. Smith said what keeps him up at night is the fear that innocent people will stumble into a confrontation.
"They steal the land, they steal the water, and then they decimate the environment," Smith said.
He's passionate about busting marijuana farms on public lands. He said they couldn't do it without the help of local and state resources in Utah's southern counties. They've been fighting pot farms for years, but the enemy has changed.
"They steal the land, they steal the water, and then they decimate the environment. - Frank SmithThe drug team spent many hours gathering intelligence, hiking to remote pot farms and setting up surveillance to gather even more evidence. They raided one growing operation with the Dateline crew, as the cartel's farmers and armed guards fled.
Chris Hansen said he was amazed buy what he witnessed.
"It was massive, and it looked like it had been professionally grown in a green house someplace," Hansen said. "It's a sophisticated operation with irrigation. These were very mature plants, and in some cases these were worth $20 to $40 million on the street."
Each of the last two summers, Mexican drug cartels took over large tracts of Utah wilderness and set up dozens of these sophisticated, irrigated operations. Smith estimates they know where 25 percent to 35 percent of the grows are located.
"Last year we eradicated over 78,000 plants," he said. "So, it's a half a billion to a billion dollar industry, here in Utah alone."
The cartels sell the marijuana in the U.S. and send the money back to Mexico to help continue to run their criminal enterprises. The crews are armed and dangerous.
"What's going to happen when a family of hikers stumbles across one of these grows?" Hansen asked. "With $20 to $40 million on the line, do you think these growers are just going to let these people go? No."
That is Smith's greatest fear. Two years ago, he said, a cartel gunman held several teen girls at gunpoint in Garfield County before the DEA hunted him down.
"They don't care about the well-being of American citizens or the well-being of our environment," he said.
According to Smith, the cartel crews dump illegal fertilizers into the ground, along with human waste, and other trash. The agents even discover multiple car batteries for used for charging their cell phones, to keep in touch with their bosses.
Last summer, KSL showed some of their success as the DEA worked with Utah law enforcement to arrest nearly 40 drug growers. Smith said the number of farms dropped last year, too.
"So, we're having success," he said. "We just have to be diligent. We have to be strong and not yield to these traffickers."
If you come across a marijuana grow, agents say, leave immediately, go back the way you came and call law enforcement. If you have a GPS device, take down the coordinates. Otherwise, make note of substantial landmarks so you can help law enforcement find it later.
Illegal Marijuana Gardens