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Illegal pot invades California’s deserts, bringing violence, fear, ecological destruction

Before his corpse was dumped in a shallow grave 50 miles north of Los Angeles, Mauricio Ismael Gonzalez-Ramirez was held prisoner at one of the hundreds of black-market pot farms that have exploded across California’s high desert in the last several years, authorities say.

He worked in what has become California’s newest illegal marijuana haven: the Mojave Desert. A world away from the lush forest groves of the “Emerald Triangle” of Northern California, this hot, dry, unforgiving climate has attracted more than a thousand marijuana plantations that fill the arid expanse between the Antelope Valley and the Colorado River.

It’s an unprecedented siege that has upended life in the remote desert communities and vast tract developments that overlook Joshua trees and scrub. Authorities say the boom has led to forced labor, violence, water theft and the destruction of fragile desert habitat and wildlife.

Longtime residents say they feel less safe, claiming black-market growers act with impunity by carrying weapons, trading gunfire with rivals and threatening those who wander too close to their farms.

“When our family moved to Twentynine Palms nine years ago, it was peaceful and calm,” said Amy Tessier, 38. “The invasion of pot farms changed all that. … We don’t go for walks under the stars anymore. It just doesn’t feel safe.”

Many of these illicit farms are run by criminal organizations, according to federal drug agents, and often rely on the labor of undocumented immigrants like Gonzalez-Ramirez.

Enlisted by growers from his hometown in Mexico, the 26-year-old tended marijuana plants for perhaps as long as a month and a half at a makeshift greenhouse on the outskirts of Lake Los Angeles, where he was held against his will, prosecutors say, by means of “violence, menace, fraud and deceit.”

In February, he was shot in the head with a semiautomatic pistol and buried in a desolate stretch of desert.

After a tip led authorities to unearth Gonzalez-Ramirez’s body a month later, they arrested three undocumented farm operators on suspicion of murder and false imprisonment. The suspects, according to court documents, were said to be “affiliated with the Jalisco cartel.”

To Read The Rest Of This Article By Jaclyn Cosgrove and Louis Sahagun on Los Angeles Times

Published: July 14, 2021

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