(Update: More details on migrant workers' status)
Detectives say most laborers were Mexican nationals illegally trafficked into US, forced to work
ALFALFA, Ore. (KTVZ) – 'Millions of dollars worth of marijuana,' Central Oregon drug detectives, assisted by the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team, raided and dismantled a 30-acre illegal marijuana grow in Alfalfa operated by a Mexican drug cartel, seizing more than 9,200 plants in what’s likely the largest such bust in county history, deputies said Friday.
Thursday’s raid by detectives with the Deschutes County Illegal Marijuana Enforcement Team concluded a long-term investigation involving the large-scale outdoor marijuana grow near Dodds and Alfalfa Market roads, Sergeant Kent Vander Kamp said.
The search warrant led to seizure of 9,227 marijuana plants in various stages of growth in 49 greenhouses, he said. Detectives also seized 2,800 pounds of processed marijuana, two pistols and an AR-15 rifle.
An investigation found that the grow site was run by and affiliated with a Mexican cartel seeking to grow and sell illegal marijuana throughout the country, Vander Kamp said.
Most of the laborers found working on the site are Mexican nationals who were illegally trafficked into the country and forced to work at the site, the sergeant said. They were found living in primitive wooden structures and dome tents, with limited clean-water sources and dumping wastewater directly into the soil.
Vander Kamp said about 20 people were detained and later released by detectives at the scene. Some laborers fled onto neighboring property, he said, but offered no resistance when contacted by detectives.
Several suspects, both foreign and domestic, have been identified. One person was arrested at the scene and released with a citation to appear in court. Vander Kamp said detectives expect more arrests, after more follow-up investigations.
Vander Kamp said several million dollars worth of marijuana was being growth in the extraordinary, very sophisticated operation.
"I don't think we were expecting to walk into a facility of that large of an operation, and there were a lot of people there," he told NewsChannel 21. "And it kind of turned our criminal investigation into now more of a humanitarian mission. So our goal is to kind of identify the 'head of the snake' and work our way to find out where that person is."
Vander Kamp said law enforcement had been watching the property for two years, but that now was the time to conduct the raid due to its impacts on the community.
Vander Kamp also provided this statement about the workers on Saturday:
"We assisted the migrant workers to collect their property and load vehicles during the late afternoon after the search warrant. Some workers that did not have personal transportation were assisted by those that did. Several of them traveled from the East Coast and others from California. As you can imagine, many feared retaliation or punishment from the grow owners after the raid and chose to leave the area.
"Our investigators found that while some of the migrants were working against their will or under duress, the marijuana cultivation, processing and trimming business can also be lucrative for 'contract' migrant workers. We believe some of the workers we encountered are 'contractors' that travel around during the marijuana cultivation season, making a handsome income. I cannot share details of the 'duress'; the unpaid workers had been paying off personal or family debts owed to the cartel organization.
"We have received several inquires asking why the migrants were not being arrested. The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office does not enforce federal immigration laws. However, our investigators chose to handle this unusual situation more as a humanitarian effort, to ensure their safety and well-being. While their marijuana cultivations activities are unlawful, our investigation determined that (they) are not responsible for the overall operation of the grow site. The case agent has collected all of their information and individual roles at the scene. This information will be provided to the assigned prosecutors, and they will make the charging decisions."
"Our efforts will be spent seeking out and charging the 'management' and command persons of this operation in Oregon, the United States and Mexico. We are still processing evidence from this week and expect more arrests will soon follow," Vander Kamp concluded.
While possession of small amounts of marijuana is legal for recreational use in Oregon, such large, unlicensed operations remain illegal.
“Due to these operations being unregulated, they pose dangers to the public and environment,” Vander Kamp said in Friday's news release.
For example, residents in Alfalfa and nearby areas have been struggling with consistent groundwater sources. Since the enforcement team was created, investigators have found illegal marijuana grows diverted or stole “significant water” from nearby homes and farms, or directly from pumps connected to underground water sources, Vander Kamp said.
This grow site used groundwater and maintained a complex watering system that supplied several on-site 15,000 to 20,000-gallon cisterns, he said.
Also, illegal marijuana farms such as this often use pesticides and insecticides that threaten residential water supplies and endanger users.
The grows also have a very high electrical demand due to the lights, fans and other equipment. Vander Kamp said this grow site used jerry-rigged cooper wire, extension cords and power strips as permanent exterior wiring for processing equipment, lighting and fans. Overloaded electrical wiring has caused fires in other grow facilities, Vander Kamp said.
The Deschutes County Illegal Marijuana Enforcement program is a partnership between the sheriff’s office, Bend police and the district attorney’s office.
DCIME detectives were aided in the investigation, eradication and dismantling of the site by the Central Oregon Drug Enforcement team, Bend and Redmond police, the Deschutes and Crook County sheriff’s offices and the Alfalfa Fire Department, as well as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.