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Farms run and protected by Mexican and Asian organized crime groups
Some neighbors say they're afraid to leave their property
Police will be raiding the illegal grow operations all summer
Jorge Ventura Updated: JUL 12, 2023 / 06:30 PM CDT
(NewsNation) — The sheriff’s department in Riverside County, California, is waging a war on so-called “no-go” zones in the rural desert, where drug cartels are paying cash for land and setting up illegal marijuana farms.
Coined by the residents in the area, these zones are run and protected by Mexican and Asian organized crime groups.
“It’s an unbelievably lucrative criminal enterprise and we’re not getting help from the state,” Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said. “We’re not getting help from our lawmakers to try and combat it. And our communities are the ones that are suffering from it.”
Other no-go zones have been identified in pockets of rural deserts near Anza, Twentynine Palms, East Lancaster, Lake Hughes, Neenach, Acton, Pinon Hills and elsewhere. Police have raided the no-go zones, aiming to put a dent in criminal operations. NewsNation was with officers when they busted five illegal growing operations in Anza, California. The sites include water tanks, bedrooms, kitchens, showers and hundreds if not thousands of marijuana plants.
Policing the matter is complicated since the municipal violations sometimes carry heftier consequences than the actual farming, Bianco said.
Oftentimes, the farming relies on human trafficking, the victims of which are hesitant to cooperate with police, Bianco said.
"They get no money," he said. "They live in cardboard shacks sometimes and it’s appalling. We can’t get our legislators to come look at these grows. We can’t get them to look at the pictures … we're just doing everything we can to survive and the real victims are the neighbors.”
Locals say it's not the marijuana they're concerned about, but the crime and intimidation that come along with the illegal activity.
Neighbors said these illegal operations siphon water away from their fruit orchards that have grown in the area for years. Those who spoke with NewsNation asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
“It just did not make sense that they were allowing outside sales of this water for the growing of illegal crops,” one neighbor said. “We couldn’t (water) the peach orchards here. If you look around, they’re dried up. The farms out here are dried up because of the water but the cannabis growing was just prolific.”
Plus, threats of violence have scared locals from approaching the "no-go" zones. “My friend was told not to drive, not to go up there anymore...” a resident said, claiming that the friend was then shown a picture of a dead man who tried to enter the area.
During a community meeting about the neighbors’ concerns, a man dressed in black arrived in a vehicle with tinted windows, one woman told NewsNation.
“(He) got out of his car and purposely walked up, grabbed a seat, turned it around and faced the audience and basically stared us down during the whole meeting and it was very unsettling," she said.
Another woman who lives in the area said she believes the growers choose areas that are spacious and secluded. Those operations became harder to ignore once Californians could legally grow cannabis plants at home, she said.
"There’s no power on a lot of these properties but yet it looked like a city at night with the traffic, the lights, the generators, the grow lights," the woman said. "It was just crazy." Bianco fears similar activity will happen in other areas where marijuana is legalized.
“So goes California, so goes the rest of the country,” he said. “They love saying that term. Well, come talk to us here. You don't want this going on in your neck of the woods.” Officers will be conducting raids in no-go zones all summer.