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Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis
June 2007


The CVC HIDTA region serves as a national, regional, and local source of methamphetamine and high-potency marijuana. Mexican DTOs are the primary producers of both drugs, operating large-scale ice methamphetamine laboratories and outdoor cannabis grows in remote areas of the region. Asian (including Hmong, Chinese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese) criminal groups in the HIDTA region also produce high-potency marijuana. In fact, over the past year Asian-operated indoor and outdoor cannabis grows in the region have increased in number and scale and now represent a significant and growing concern to law enforcement.

Crack also is converted throughout the CVC HIDTA region; however, crack conversion is a much lower concern and threat to the region than the threats posed by methamphetamine and marijuana.

Methamphetamine Production

Small-scale methamphetamine production has decreased dramatically in the region, largely the result of increased law enforcement pressure and legislative restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine, the main precursor chemical used in methamphetamine production. The number of large-scale methamphetamine laboratories seized in the region also has decreased. However, production at undetected laboratories persists because Mexican DTOs in the region have reportedly adapted to law enforcement pressure, enabling them to sustain production levels suitable for regional- and national-level production. In fact, 2006 California Department of Toxic Substances Control data show that the CVC HIDTA counties accounted for 26 percent of the clandestine laboratory seizures, 74 percent of the dumpsites seized, and 47 percent of the cleanup budget in the state of California in 2006 (see Table 1).

Table 1. CVC HIDTA Laboratory and Dumpsite Seizures and Cleanup Costs, 2005-2006

County 2005 2006
No. of Laboratories No. of Dumpsites Cost of Cleanup No. of Laboratories No. of Dumpsites Cost of Cleanup
Fresno 7 17 $33,426 4 26 $65,443
Kern 3 3 $13,110 2 0 $3,281
Kings 0 0 $0 0 1 $2,434
Madera 3 5 $15,234 0 3 $7,217
Merced 25 92 $235,081 10 41 $100,692
Sacramento 8 5 $17,801 10 3 $25,609
San Joaquin 14 21 $68,466 21 10 $65,146
Stanislaus 26 95 $265,970 10 75 $166,602
Tulare 3 10 $32,531 8 9 $34,575
HIDTA Total 89 248 $681,619 65 168 $470,999
California Total 327 314 $1,241,500 250 227 $1,011,129
HIDTA Percentage of State Seizures/Cleanup Costs 27.22% 78.98% 54.90% 26.00% 74.01% 46.58%

Source: California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

In response to increasing law enforcement pressure, Mexican DTOs have relocated many of their large-scale production operations to very rural areas, typically renting farms or other rural properties for extended periods of time. They produce methamphetamine continuously until the operators believe it is no longer safe to operate from the location; some locations have been continuously used for several months. According to the Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force, some unscrupulous property owners provide all the necessary laboratory equipment to methamphetamine producers, who need only bring their own chemicals. In fact, in late 2006 a laboratory site that had been operated continuously by various methamphetamine producers for approximately 3 years was seized in North Fresno. The laboratory apparatus, provided by the property owner, included three 22-liter flasks and mantles capable of producing between 40 and 80 pounds of methamphetamine per production cycle. Further investigation revealed that the laboratory was connected to a similar operation in southwest Fresno. Additionally, laboratory operators increasingly conduct their "cooks" in stages, transferring methamphetamine in solution from the laboratory site to a separate processing area to minimize the loss of the completed product should the laboratory be detected.

Methamphetamine producers in the region have recognized that laboratory waste materials are valuable evidence to law enforcement in identifying laboratory operators and laboratory sites. For instance, dumpsite waste may contain evidence such as suspects' fingerprints or information as to where chemicals were procured. As a result, laboratory operators in the Central Valley increasingly set fire to laboratory dumpsites before abandoning them or use machinery to bury waste materials on the property around the laboratory site as the waste is produced. Such practices cause tremendous environmental damage and result in significant cleanup costs. According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, methamphetamine laboratory cleanup costs in the CVC HIDTA counties reached $470,999, accounting for nearly half (47%) of the $1,011,129 spent by the state of California to remediate methamphetamine laboratories and dumpsites in 2006. (See Table 1.)

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Marijuana Production

Cannabis cultivation is prevalent and increasing throughout the CVC HIDTA region. Outdoor plots in the region typically range in size from a few plants (including those cultivated for medical treatment under California Proposition 215) to hundreds of thousands of plants cultivated by Mexican DTOs (the chief marijuana producers in the region). To a lesser but increasing extent, Asian organizations also operate outdoor marijuana grow sites in the region.

Indoor cannabis cultivation in the region increased significantly in 2006, since Caucasian criminal groups, independent dealers, and Asian DTOs increasingly moved cultivation operations indoors. During the 2006 growing season, the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) reported the eradication of an estimated 2,967,327 cannabis plants from both indoor and outdoor grows in California. DCE/SP cannabis plant seizures in CVC HIDTA counties totaled 251,841. Of the cannabis plants seized by DCE/SP in the CVC HIDTA, most were eradicated from grow sites located primarily in Fresno, Tulare, and Kern Counties. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Central Valley California HIDTA cannabis eradication sites, 2006.

Map showing Central Valley California HIDTA cannabis eradication sites, 2006.

Source: Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program.

Outdoor Cultivation

Mexican DTOs typically cultivate cannabis outdoors in remote, mountainous areas of the CVC HIDTA region to avoid law enforcement detection and discovery through aerial surveillance. Mexican DTO cannabis grow sites are commonly seized from public and National Forest System lands, including portions of National Forests that lie within the CVC HIDTA region. In fact, DCE/SP data indicate that the Sequoia, Los Padres, and Sierra National Forests ranked fifth, sixth, and ninth, respectively, among the top 10 National Forests for eradication of cannabis on National Forest System lands.

Asian criminal groups in the area, primarily Hmong, also cultivate cannabis outdoors, typically in commercial agriculture areas. These groups employ individuals who work in the local agriculture industry to cultivate the plants on behalf of the criminal group. Asian criminal groups' cannabis grows are often commingled with legitimate crops, and Asian cannabis growers typically train the plants to grow low along the ground rather than vertically in an attempt to render the plants undetectable to passersby and air surveillance units.

Indoor Cultivation

Caucasian criminal groups and independent dealers appear to be the primary indoor cultivators of cannabis in the CVC HIDTA region; however, indoor grows operated by Asian criminal groups are becoming increasingly common in the region. Recent law enforcement reporting indicates that Asian criminal groups in the region often operate several sites simultaneously, working in coordination with associates in cities within and outside the region to facilitate growing operations. Some groups establish grow sites in several areas in an attempt to decrease losses from law enforcement eradication efforts. These groups manage their grow sites independently; however, they often exchange supplies, share grow methods, and coordinate smuggling efforts. For instance, law enforcement reporting indicates that several of the large indoor grow sites seized in the CVC HIDTA during 2006 were connected with similar grow sites seized in the San Francisco area as well as with grow sites seized in western Canada.

Cloned Starter Plants

Cloned starter plants enable cannabis cultivators to select higher-quality plants and avoid male-female pollination, thereby raising potential THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) content. Cloning a cannabis plant is accomplished by simply taking a cutting of a select plant, allowing the cutting to sprout roots, and then planting it as a seedling, thereby creating a plant of the same genetic makeup as the parent plant. The use of clones also ensures that the plants have a well-established root system when planted, thereby increasing the chance of a successful maturation process. Cloned starter plants are increasingly being grown in California and Oregon and, to a lesser extent, in Appalachian states, including Kentucky and Tennessee.

Grow Site Protection

Violence used by Mexican DTOs to protect their cannabis grow sites is a growing concern among law enforcement in California. Cannabis plot tenders hired by Mexican DTOs typically are heavily armed and use their weapons to protect crops. Plot tenders who previously relied upon booby traps placed along trails leading to grow sites to thwart law enforcement have become more aggressive in protecting their plots and are likely to use weapons to do so. Over the past year, law enforcement agencies in California have increasingly engaged in armed standoffs and officer-involved shootings with cannabis cultivators. During this time, crop tenders armed with weapons ranging from pellet guns to assault rifles have become less likely to surrender when approached by law enforcement or to hide from passersby, instead standing guard from above grow sights to detect and confront intruders. To that end, DCE/SP data for California show an increase in the number of weapons seized from California marijuana eradication sites from 591 in 2004 to 749 in 2005, the most recent data available.

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