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California - Southern District Drug Threat Assessment
December 2000


Marijuana is the most prevalent drug in San Diego and Imperial Counties and Mexican DTOs continue to be the principal suppliers. According to 1999 statistics, authorities seized more marijuana than any other drug at the Southwest Border. A sampling of USCS figures for 2000 shows that marijuana continues to be the most frequently smuggled drug at California POEs. The amount of marijuana seized at or within 150 miles of the border rose 238 percent between 1995 and 1999. (See Table 6.)

In August 1999, Mexican authorities seized 10 tons of marijuana believed to be destined for San Diego. San Diego and Imperial Counties are principal transshipment points for Mexican-produced marijuana destined for areas throughout the country.

Table 6. Arrival Zone Seizures California-Mexico Border
Drug 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 Change from 1995 to 1999 (Percent)


56,737 169,287 138,662 186,941 191,514



16,041 12,028 5,577 7,430 7,117 -56


81 106 87 127 119 47


N/A N/A 382 421 696 82

Source: DEA, El Paso Intelligence Center, Arrival Zone Seizures, Updated 23 February 2000.

Most of the marijuana available in San Diego and Imperial Counties is produced in Mexico, but it is also cultivated locally. In 1999, authorities seized almost 240,000 pounds of marijuana that had been cultivated on public lands in Central and Southern California. High quality marijuana from Canada (BC Bud) is also available in the district. In the San Diego-Imperial County area, Mexican-produced marijuana sells for $310 to $600 per pound; BC Bud sells for $4,000. Mexican marijuana distributors in Los Angeles may be buying BC Bud, mixing it with Mexican-produced marijuana, and marketing it as BC Bud.

BC Bud is cultivated mainly in British Columbia and is growing in popularity because of its higher (about 25 percent) THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content. This compares to THC levels of 4 to 6 percent in Mexican-produced marijuana. BC Bud sells for $1,500-$2,000 per pound in Vancouver, British Columbia, $4,000 per pound in Portland, and $6,000 per pound in Los Angeles. Outlaw motorcycle gangs and Vietnamese criminal organizations control marijuana production in British Columbia. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimates that there are 8,000 indoor marijuana grows on the lower mainland of British Columbia.

According to a recent report from NIN, there are approximately 91 drug organizations trafficking marijuana in the Southern California and Mexico Border Region. In 1999, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies participated in 902 narcotic enforcement actions (search warrants, arrest warrants, and waiver searches) involving marijuana and 1,590 polydrug events, some of which probably included marijuana. A number of the polydrug distributors deal in marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin, the three major drugs trafficked by Mexican DTOs.

USCS seizures made in 2000 show that marijuana continues to be one of the most frequently smuggled drugs at California POEs. A number of significant marijuana seizures were reported during June 2000 including two at Tecate (927 lb and 1,495 lb), two at San Ysidro (1,000 lb and 215 lb), and one each at Otay Mesa (822 lb) and Calexico (452 lb).

Photograph 1.  Seizure Example

Picture of marijuana in engine compartment of pickup truck.NDIC

U.S. Customs seized 192 pounds of marijuana packed in the engine compartment of a pickup truck in April 2000 at the San Ysidro port of entry.

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Treatment admissions for marijuana/hashish abuse in San Diego and Imperial Counties registered the highest increase of any drug from FY1998 to FY1999: San Diego County admissions rose 84 percent (from 1,035 to 1,906) and Imperial County admissions rose 18 percent (from 150 to 178). The majority of those seeking treatment were under 18 years of age, male, and Caucasian. Hispanics made up the second largest group, and African Americans the third. Many experts consider marijuana to be a gateway drug and express concern that increased marijuana use will lead to the abuse of more harmful illicit substances.

The most recent data from the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs indicate that the number of treatment admissions for marijuana in San Diego and Imperial Counties increased again in FY2000. The number of those seeking treatment for marijuana use rose from 2,084 in FY1999 to 2,355 in FY2000, an increase of 13 percent. Despite the sizable increase, marijuana admissions still rank well below those for heroin (5,224) and methamphetamine (4,226).

A recent medical study suggests that middle-age and older marijuana smokers may be at increased risk for a heart attack within the first hour of use. Another study indicates that smoking marijuana may increase the risk of lung cancer. Experiments demonstrate that THC reduces the body's ability to produce cytokines, immune suppressors that are known to limit tumor growth. The main cause for concern is that marijuana deposits a large amount of tar in the respiratory tract.


Marijuana is the most widely available illicit substance in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Federal, state, and local law enforcement classify it as the most prevalent drug encountered in the area by far. The San Diego Sheriff's Department and the Chula Vista Police Department identify marijuana availability as high and the threat as increasing. More marijuana is seized on California's southern border than any other drug. Between 1996 and 1999, the amount of marijuana seized increased 17 percent. Seizures of marijuana along the entire length of the Southwest Border have increased each year as well--from 423.4 metric tons in 1996 to 993.7 metric tons in 1999. However, recent data from CBAG indicates that seizures for the first six months of 2000 have remained about the same as the corresponding period in 1999. NIN reports that the price of marijuana has decreased from $400- $600 per pound in 1999 to about $310 per pound in 2000, an indication that supply may be outstripping demand. The retail price of 1 gram or less is $5, of 1 to 3 grams $10, and of 7 grams (1/4 ounce) $50 to $55.

Table 7.Marijuana Prices
  DEA-9/30/99 NIN-2000


$100-$400 $50-$75



 (Mexican under 10% THC)

$300-$600 $300-$400

Pound (BC Bud 25% THC)


Source: Narcotic Information Network, San Diego-Imperial County Street Drug Price List, March 2000.

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While the abusers are generally characterized as nonviolent, marijuana trafficking generates violence. Investigations of DTOs and other criminal organizations identify their involvement in extortion, murder, contract killing, and intimidation as a part of doing business. During the commission of the crime of smuggling, violence is often directed at law enforcement. For example, the driver of a vehicle containing 2,800 pounds of marijuana attempted to run down a U.S. Customs agent at the San Ysidro POE in March 2000; the Customs agent was forced to shoot the driver, who died at the scene.



Domestic production may account for upwards of 50 percent of the marijuana consumed in the United States. Nationwide, the cannabis growing states of California, Hawaii, Kentucky, and Tennessee produce so much marijuana that the United States now exports marijuana to Canada.

The DEA San Diego Field Division reports an increase in the number of smaller outdoor grow sites in the mountainous areas of San Diego County as well as of indoor grows. Some growers are cultivating cannabis on public lands. The U.S. Forest Service reports that seizures in the Cleveland, San Bernardino, and Angeles National Forests increased over 300 percent in the last 3-year period. The Forest Service seized 49,126 pounds of cannabis in 1997 and 237,329 pounds in 1999 in the three areas.

A technique called supercropping enables cannabis growers to double or triple their yield. This technique is cause for concern because current federal laws focus on the number of plants seized; the mandatory minimum sentence threshold is 100 plants. The supercropping method of cultivation allows cannabis growers to achieve a higher yield while staying under the 100-plant threshold.

Hydroponic and cloning techniques allow marijuana growers to harvest crops with a higher THC content three to four times a year. Approximately 6,600 plants were seized in the San Diego area in the last quarter of FY1999. Aeroponics is another relatively new method used in the cultivation of cannabis. Cannabis plants are suspended in the air by attaching the stems to a structure. Sprayers, similar to those found in the produce departments of supermarkets, are used to spray nutrients on the roots. Timers are used to turn the sprayers on and off at set intervals.

Growers may automate indoor cannabis cultivation using computers and multitask controllers. The operation of computers and controllers from a remote location enables cannabis growers to distance themselves from the growing operation. Electronically controlled cannabis operations also require less manpower during the growing phase. Computers can be used to monitor development of the plants and environmental factors such as light, water, and temperature. Computers can also be used to maintain cultivation records and store customer information. Multitask automatic controllers are powered by electricity and are usually fully programmable, using timers and sensors to monitor and control the grow environment. Controllers have the advantage of being more economical and easier to use than computers. Controllers that can be programmed require minimum oversight and computers can be accessed from a separate site.

County law enforcement reports that Caucasians and illegal aliens are responsible for virtually all of the outdoor cannabis grows but that only Caucasians are responsible for the indoor grows encountered. The same source further reports that supercropping techniques are being used in indoor cannabis cultivation.

Subsequent to an investigation in Los Angeles, authorities in San Ysidro, California, discovered an indoor cannabis operation in an underground room. The room was located beneath a residence; it was accessed by a trapdoor located in a bedroom closet.

In April 2000, federal agents arrested two men who were operating a large, sophisticated indoor cannabis growing operation in Alpine, located on I-8 east of San Diego near the Cleveland National Forest. Agents seized 750 marijuana plants and thousands of dollars' worth of growing equipment. According to the report, one of the subjects was alleged to have been involved in major cannabis growing operations in Florida in the 1990s, and federal agents traced him to the San Diego area.

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The flow of marijuana over the California- Mexico border continues at a vigorous pace and Mexican traffickers are the principal sources of supply for marijuana. Large quantities of marijuana are transported overland through Mexico to the California-Mexico border. The transporters use tractor-trailers and various other vehicles to move the marijuana over Mexico's highways and secondary roads to the Southwest Border. In April 2000, Mexican Federal Judicial Police seized 7.5 metric tons of marijuana in a truck near Ensenada. The truck was traveling from La Paz to the border city of Tijuana.

Most marijuana is smuggled overland. The principal land corridors from Baja California into Southern California continue to be through and between California POEs. Marijuana is smuggled in commercial and private vehicles and by backpackers. According to USCS, most marijuana smugglers use the San Ysidro POE, followed by Calexico and Otay Mesa. In May 2000, USCS reported several large seizures of marijuana at POEs. At Otay Mesa, Customs seized 6,855 pounds of marijuana that had been hidden inside detergent boxes. At the Tecate POE, Customs seized two large shipments, of 6,939 pounds and 4,454 pounds, which had been hidden inside the front walls of commercial tractor-trailers. Other large shipments have been commingled with legitimate cargo such as wood chips and produce. Multihundred-pound shipments of marijuana have been seized from personal vehicles where they were hidden in various compartments and places such as quarter panels and spare tires. They may also be hidden in boxes of clothing. During the first quarter of 2000, USCS seized over 92,000 pounds of marijuana at California POEs.

CBAG reports that marijuana smuggling organizations are moving their operations east of Otay Mountain and the majority of seizures are being made west of the Tecate POE. The Tierra Del Sol in East San Diego is considered a preferred smuggling area. Backpackers from Mexico can walk across the border, leave the marijuana at a predetermined drop site, and return to Mexico. Pickup vehicles have quick access to Highway 94, which connects to Interstate 8. Border Patrol agents conducted the largest seizure reported for the San Diego area in 1999 at Tierra Del Sol, where they confiscated 4,902 pounds of marijuana. Since there is a border fence in the area, agents believe the smugglers used a specially equipped vehicle to place a ramp up and over the fence, allowing a vehicle to drive over the fence.

According to the DEA San Diego Field Division, most marijuana seizures are made in the DEA Imperial County Resident Office area of responsibility. DEA attributes this to long established smuggling activities along the Imperial County- Baja California Norte border. The Ocotillo area in western Imperial County is also considered a preferred area for marijuana smuggling. Backpacking is a commonly used method for smuggling marijuana into this area. The Imperial County Narcotics Task Force reports that backpackers may transit the desert in the eastern part of the county and deposit the marijuana at predetermined drop sites. Backpackers transport approximately 3 to 5 tons of marijuana into the region quarterly, and backpacking activity accounts for 30 to 40 percent of all the marijuana seizures made by DEA Imperial County Resident Office. These seizures are usually due to referrals from the USBP. According to a recent news report, the amount of marijuana backpackers carry varies with the distance traveled: 50 to 60 pounds for a few miles but 30 to 40 pounds for longer distances. DEA in Imperial County reports that recently a preferred method for moving marijuana has been to transport bulk shipments unconcealed in the rear of sport utility vehicles or concealed in tractor-trailers hauling hay.

Marijuana smugglers also have access to San Diego County through its coastal areas. Smugglers use a wide variety of private and commercial vessels including inflatable speedboats and fishing boats to transport marijuana. In 1999, the Maritime Task Force seized over 7,600 pounds of marijuana on or near the coast of San Diego.

Mexican DTOs are also known to use the rail system to transport large quantities of marijuana through Mexico. Between 1995 and 1996, Mexican authorities seized over 40 metric tons of marijuana from railcars. In one instance, 4.7 metric tons were found in the cargo area of a passenger train. In 1997, the U.S. Border Patrol seized over 2 metric tons of marijuana from a boxcar that had been transported to the United States from Mexico. The marijuana was hidden in a false compartment.

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Mexico-based DTOs are the primary sources of marijuana encountered in the San Diego- Imperial County area. The region is both a destination and a transshipment point for Mexican marijuana. Mexican DTOs working through middlemen control the wholesale distribution of marijuana in the two-county area. Jamaican drug trafficking groups also have a major role in marijuana trafficking at the wholesale level. Intelligence reporting indicates that Jamaican drug trafficking groups use the San Diego area as both a consolidation and a transshipment point for marijuana to be shipped to the East Coast. At the retail level, marijuana is distributed by various criminal groups, individuals, and street gangs. Law enforcement agencies responding to a survey by NIN identified 91 organizations involved in the transportation or distribution of marijuana in the area on both sides of the California-Mexico border.



While Mexican DTOs--especially the Arellano-Felix Organization--are the primary sources of supply, the San Diego Sheriff's Department reports that the most notable change in the trafficking of marijuana is the increased involvement of Jamaican groups in transportation and distribution at the wholesale level. Jamaican DTOs control a large marijuana distribution network in San Diego. Jamaican DTOs are using San Diego as a transshipment point for marijuana destined for eastern and midwestern U.S. cities. A recent report suggests that Puerto Rican trafficking groups are also involved in the transshipment of marijuana from San Diego to other U.S. locations.

CBAG reports that marijuana is the most commonly encountered drug shipped by mail. An estimated 80 percent of the packages seized have been linked directly to Jamaican crime groups. Intelligence indicates that Jamaican DTOs may be consolidating marijuana in the San Diego area in preparation for transporting large shipments east using tractor-trailers, motor homes, and buses. Law enforcement reporting indicates that Jamaican DTOs purchase Mexican marijuana in the San Diego area for as little as $300 per pound and sell it on the East Coast for $1,000 to $1,350 per pound.

Drug traffickers appear to be managing their risk by moving more, but smaller, shipments of drugs and currency (shotgunning). For example, in 1999, seizures of less than 100 pounds accounted for 75 percent of the number and 50 percent of the weight of marijuana seizures at the POEs. DEA reports that the size and amount of drug and currency shipments seized from couriers on airline flights to and from San Diego decreased. They further reported that the average amount of currency seized by their Commercial Interdiction Team at various mail distribution centers averaged between $10,000 and $20,000.

Other marijuana wholesalers identified by DEA were Puerto Rican criminal groups. Their modus operandi appeared to be a form of shotgunning. In the first 6 months of 1999, male couriers traveled from Puerto Rico to San Diego with a few thousand dollars to purchase 30- to 50-pound lots of marijuana. They intended to transport the marijuana back to Puerto Rico.



Federal, state, and local law enforcement sources report that the local marijuana trade is heavily influenced by the Arellano-Felix Organization. The San Diego Sheriff's Department and the Chula Vista Police Department report that the individuals and groups distributing marijuana in the area include independent dealers, street gangs, and Caucasian, Jamaican, and Mexican criminal groups. Of these, Mexican groups were identified as dominant. The San Diego County Drug Task Force reports that distributors of marijuana consist of individuals, street gangs, and loosely knit, predominately Hispanic cells or groups which, for the most part, are involved in the sale of multiple drugs.

One example of polydrug distribution involving marijuana occurred in March 2000. Escondido police and the DEA Mobile Enforcement Team arrested 40 suspects that included Westside Gang members and other drug dealers. Law enforcement investigations showed that the gangs were becoming more organized in their drug dealing and that more of the drugs were coming from Mexico. During the arrests, authorities seized marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin. Allegedly the subjects purchased pound quantities of drugs and repackaged them into ounce quantities.

As noted earlier in this report, La Eme controls a large portion of drug distribution in the area through the use of street gangs and the imposition of taxes on other dealers. A case that highlights this situation culminated in April 2000 when a member of La Eme was found guilty of extortion for demanding payments from drug suppliers. The subject not only demanded thousands of dollars from a drug dealer, he also assaulted him and took his vehicle as partial payment for "taxes" owed.

In some cases, drug dealers do not fit the stereotype. In Desert Hot Springs, located in northwestern Imperial County, police arrested a 70-year-old woman for distribution of marijuana and crack cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school. Police seized about $1,000 worth of crack cocaine and $40 worth of marijuana.

Authorities also report that, prior to being shipped to various destinations throughout the country, marijuana is placed in area stash houses. An example of this occurred in June 2000, when law enforcement in City Heights found 465 pounds of marijuana inside a residence. Officers report that marijuana was stored at the residence and then sent elsewhere for distribution.


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