WELDON, Calif. — A few minutes after 4 a.m., agents in camouflage cluster in a dusty field in Kern County, Calif. "Movement needs to be slow, deliberate and quiet," the team leader whispers. "Lock and load now."
They check their ammunition and assault rifles, not exactly sure who they might meet in the dark: heavily armed Mexican drug traffickers, or just poorly paid fieldworkers camping miserably in the brush.
Twenty minutes later, after a lights-off drive for a mile, the agents climb out of two pickup trucks and sift into the high desert brush.
The granite faces of the Southern Sierra are washed in the light of a full moon. Two spotters with night-vision scopes take positions on the ridge to monitor the marijuana grow, tucked deep in a cleft of the canyon.
The rest of the agents hunker down in some sumac waiting for the call to move in. The action has to be precisely timed with raids in Bakersfield, where they hope to capture the leaders of the organization.
They have no idea how many people are up here. Thermal imaging aircraft circling high above was not detecting anyone on the ground. And trail cameras hadn't captured images of men delivering supplies for more than a week. Maybe the growers have already harvested and cleared out.
Word comes on the radio to go into the site. The agents fan out in the gray of dawn. A U.S. Forest Service agent unleashes a German shepherd and follows it up a piney slope. After several minutes, the dog begins barking furiously.
"We have movement," shouts the Forest Service officer. "Hands up."
Such raids have become commonplace in California, part of a costly, frustrating campaign to eradicate ever-bigger, more destructive marijuana farms and dismantle the shadowy groups that are creating them.
Pot cultivated on public lands surged in the last decade, a side effect of the medical cannabis boom. In 2001, several hundred thousand plants were seized in the state. By 2010, authorities pulled up a record 7.4 million plants, mostly on public land.
Law enforcement long called these grows on public land "cartel grows," and hoped to work from the busts in the forest up the drug hierarchy, maybe all the way to the Sinaloa Cartel or the Zetas.
But after years of raids and work with informants and wiretaps, agents realize the operations seemed to be run by independent groups of Mexican nationals, often using undocumented fieldworkers from their home regions.
Tommy Lanier, director of the National Marijuana Initiative, part of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said there was scant evidence that the cartels exerted much control over marijuana growing in the national forests.
"Based on our intelligence, which includes thousands of cellphone numbers and wiretaps, we haven't been able to connect anyone to a major cartel," he said.
Lanier said authorities have long mislabeled marijuana grown on public land as "cartel grows" because Mexican nationals are arrested in the majority of cases, and the narrative of fighting drug cartels helps them secure federal funding.
He doesn't rule out that some of the cash flowing south of the border makes its way to members of those groups. He just doesn't believe they are actively directing activities up here.
"We've had undercover agents at the highest level of these groups, breaking bread and drinking tequila," says Roy Giorgi, commander of the Mountain and Valley Marijuana Investigation Team, a multi-agency organization headquartered in Sacramento. "Even at their most comfortable, the leaders never said, 'Hey, we're working for the Zetas.' "
In Giorgi's jurisdiction, the majority of the people arrested or investigated are originally from the state of Michoacan, where marijuana growing and immigration to the U.S. are entrenched.
In their hometowns, growers have to sell their marijuana to cartels for a fraction of what they could make in California. When they come north, they see opportunity in the state's vast wilderness. They have the know-how and perseverance to set up clandestine farms and live for months at a time in extremely rugged spots. Loncheros — lunchmen — often make weekly supply runs in the middle of the night, bringing food, beer and fertilizer. The workers wear camouflage, often sleep in the brush-covered tents, cook on propane stoves in crude kitchens and supplement their food by poaching deer and other wildlife.
Giorgi says these organizations can still be well-financed, heavily armed and dangerous.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman realized at a community meeting in 2010 how bad the situation was in the Mendocino National Forest when five of the eight people who went to the microphone said basically: "I was out in the national forest "… herding cows or sheep or hiking or fishing. And someone shot at me. So I'm not going into the national forest."
The following summer, Allman helped lead a task force on a three-week purge of pot from the area. They pulled out 632,000 plants, 42 miles of irrigation line and 52 tons of garbage. Agents arrested 132 people and confiscated 38 guns.
Is the forest safe today? "I'll put it this way," Allman said. "I'd go camping in the National Forest, but I wouldn't let my sister go."
Would he camp unarmed? "No."