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Domestic Cannabis Cultivation Assessment 2007
February 2007

Violence, Countersurveillance, and Camouflage

Cannabis cultivation operations are deliberately located by growers in remote areas of public and private lands to lessen the chance of discovery from passersby or law enforcement. These sites are often concealed by camouflage and protected by armed guards conducting countersurveillance. Some sites are also protected by potentially life-threatening booby traps. These operations pose a particular threat to unwitting visitors, hunters, and hikers who often enter the remote areas where grow sites are located and are confronted--and sometimes fired upon--by armed guards.

Cannabis growers, particularly Mexican DTOs in California and Washington, are becoming more aggressive in protecting cultivation sites. Since 2003 the number of armed encounters between law enforcement officers and cannabis grow-site operators in California and Washington has significantly increased. Cannabis cultivators are employing armed guards who are strategically stationed at elevations above the grow site in order to detect approaching law enforcement scouts--usually one or two officers scouting remote areas for grow sites. Over the past 3 years these guards, armed with weapons ranging from pellet guns to assault rifles, have increasingly engaged law enforcement officials in armed standoffs and, on several occasions, have exchanged gunfire with law enforcement scouts. These guards attempt to repel the patrols long enough for crop tenders to harvest as much of the cannabis as possible before a larger law enforcement contingent returns to eradicate the site. According to law enforcement officials, armed individuals are increasingly protecting cannabis crops because of their high value, increased competition with other growers, and increasing eradication pressure, and because many crop tenders, who are illegal aliens, must harvest the crop as payment to a Mexican DTO for their entry into the United States. Armed encounters between grow-site operators and private citizens reportedly are infrequent; however, the likelihood of such encounters is increasing, particularly since DTOs are establishing more outdoor grow sites on public lands, including national parks and game lands, especially in northern California. One such confrontation occurred in October 2006, when a man hunting in a remote location within the Mendocino National Forest was fired upon by four individuals after he inadvertently approached the edge of a cannabis grow site. Additionally, in June 2006, two individuals near a grow site in a remote area north of Covelo, California, were shot and killed.

The use of unattended booby traps by Mexican DTOs at large outdoor cultivation operations in western states has decreased over the past several years--armed guards are now preferred. Until the mid- to late 1990s, Mexican DTOs frequently protected outdoor cannabis grow sites from intrusion with potentially lethal booby traps. Typical booby traps included fishhooks strung from trees, rat traps configured with shot gun shells designed to discharge when tripped, trip lines, and animal traps. Since the late 1990s, however, cultivators have increasingly employed armed guards, and at larger plots they often employ several additional individuals (typically two who tend the site on a rotating basis). As a result, law enforcement officials are encountering fewer booby-trapped sites. However, unlike law enforcement officials in western states, the Kentucky State Police (KSP) reported an increase in booby trap use in smaller, usually unattended, outdoor cannabis plots in 2006. Growers in Kentucky, predominantly Caucasian independent growers, use a variety of booby traps, including punji sticks (see Figure 3)--which may be camouflaged by leaves and brush or incorporated into pits--and explosive devices to reduce the risk of crop theft.

Figure 3. Punji stick boards seized from cannabis cultivation operations in Kentucky, 2006.

Photo showing punji stick boards seized from cannabis cultivation operations in Kentucky, 2006.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service

The use of camouflage and countersurveillance by outdoor cannabis cultivators is common and often effective. Law enforcement reporting from leading cultivation states, including California, Kentucky, and Oregon, indicates that grow-site operators commonly camouflage marijuana crops by planting cannabis under tree canopies to conceal the crop from aerial surveillance. Some cultivators also camouflage their crops by commingling cannabis with legitimate crops. Tents and equipment used by plot tenders also are often camouflaged with netting or painted in camouflage colors and patterns. To further evade detection, cultivators often employ methods of countersurveillance to monitor activity in their area. The plot tenders' most common method of countersurveillance is simply patrolling a grow site to observe any human activity. Additionally, the Oregon Department of Justice reports that some plot tenders in that state are beginning to sweep trails leading to grow sites free from signs of foot traffic; they later check trails for footprints as a method of monitoring movement in the area.

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