x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Forests hide fields of opium poppies

Mexican drug cartels may be trying their hand at growing poppy in Oregon since their previous cross-border drug venture has proven such a success.

DENVER // Mexican drug cartels may be trying their hand at growing poppy in Oregon since their previous cross-border drug venture has proven such a success. Over the past two years there has been a dramatic increase in discoveries of illicit marijuana fields growing in national and state parks across the US West. Counternarcotics authorities believe Mexican cartels now grow billions of dollars worth of marijuana every year right here in the United States.

This summer in Colorado alone, authorities have seized more than 20,000 marijuana plants from illegal farms hidden in protected forestlands. In the most recent bust, federal and local agents found a rifle, propane tanks and a marijuana field the size of a football pitch. It was the largest pot-growing operation ever found in the Rocky Mountain state. Another massive operation, in California's Sierra National Forest, this year seized about 318,000 marijuana plants worth an estimated US$1.1 billion (Dh4bn).

In various states, authorities have arrested illegal immigrants from Mexico who had been smuggled across the border and paid to tend the remote fields for months at a time. Some speculate the cartels have moved into the sparsely populated parks because it is less risky than trying to smuggle large quantities of drugs across the border. Most states have few resources for patrolling their parks. In Colorado, for example, there are just 29 rangers overseeing 5.6 million hectares of forest.

Authorities worry these pot farms represent a danger to hikers and campers who may stumble across armed men in the middle of the forest. "We don't want it to get to the point where it is not safe for the public to go out into national forests," Michael Skinner, assistant agent in charge of the US Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region, told The Denver Post newspaper. In addition, there is an environmental risk. Not only do the drug operations clear cut large swathes of land, but drug growers also bring in pesticides and fertilisers than can damage the pristine forests. Illegal camps associated with the cannabis fields also have been blamed in several recent California wildfires.

"Mexican drug trafficking organisations have been operating on public lands to cultivate marijuana, with serious consequences for the environment and public safety," said Gil Kerlikowske, chief of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy at a recent briefing. foreign.desk@thenational.ae