A laborer, who said he was recruited “to come build something out here by a businessman from L.A.,” steps outside his trailer for a smoke at a cannabis farm near Shiprock, New Mexico. Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico
In the fertile northeast corner of the Navajo Nation, near the town of Shiprock, New Mexico, fields that only months ago were traditional open-air corn farms are now stuffed with hundreds of industrial-sized greenhouses, each glowing with artificial lights and brimming with emerald cannabis plants. Security cameras ring the perimeters and guards in flak jackets patrol the public roads alongside the farms.
Every weekday throughout the summer, a group of local kids woke at sunrise and arrived at the farm by 7:30, ready for a 10-hour shift of hard labor under the high desert sun. Many were teenagers, 13- and 14-year-olds lured by offers of quick cash. A few were as young as 10.
Joining them were scores of foreign workers — more than 1,000 people, many of them Chinese immigrants brought to New Mexico from Los Angeles, according to Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco.
The crops, according to the man responsible for the operation, are merely hemp plants — a type of cannabis that is grown for its fiber and over-the-counter health products. Hemp, a common agricultural crop, looks and smells identical to regular marijuana, but contains only trace amounts of psychoactive THC. But according to the seven employees interviewed by the nonprofit newsroom Searchlight New Mexico, the farms are not only growing hemp — they’re also producing high-powered, black-market marijuana.
Irving Lin, a Los Angeles-based real estate agent who has been named a primary player in the operation, acknowledged that was true.
Published: September 23, 2020