Sheriff seizes drugs and guns during raids on pot farms in San Bernardino County

Specialized sheriff’s agents seized black market goods worth hundreds of millions of dollars and arrested 326 people – some foreign residents or allegedly linked to international “trafficking organizations” – during raids on pot farms across San Bernardino County.

Sheriff Shannon Dicus launched Operation Hammer Strike on August 30 under pressure from rural residents of sparsely populated and relatively undeveloped High Desert communities.

Longtime residents say the presence of these farms has accelerated near their homes in recent years, leading to escalating water thefts, environmental degradation and threats to public safety that have already hit hard. the region long before the current outbreak.

Hammer Strike produced a plethora of arrests and seizures in less than three months, suggesting an international presence is helping fuel the underground economy of Southern California, according to a Daily Press analysis of Department of Justice disclosures. sheriff.

The Sheriff’s Department seized at least 83 firearms and nearly $ 800,000 in illicit cash, destroyed around 1,500 illegally operated greenhouses, and destroyed 15 different illegal devices that stole electricity in various parts of the High Desert.

Yet the amount of illicit drugs captured by officers in these raids overshadows all of those numbers.

To some extent, the black market value of Hammer Strike foreclosures made by the Sheriff’s Department is incalculable. The Sheriff’s Marijuana Special Teams seized a combined total of nearly 55,000 pounds of processed cannabis from illegal crops, as well as more than 260,000 raw cannabis plants.

Based on estimates from sources familiar with the black market, a pound of pot “on the street” ranges from $ 1,000 to $ 4,000 in the United States depending on factors such as quality and supply.

Using these metrics, Hammer Strike seized a low of $ 54.8 million and a high of $ 219 million of processed weed after less than three months.

Separately, the raw factories seized by Hammer Strike agents alone could produce more than $ 1 billion in additional value. A cannabis plant on its own can produce a few grams of a pot or an entire pound, depending on the equipment and commitment applied by a pot grower.

San Bernardino County Sheriff officials are investigating an illegal cultivation of marijuana in this undated photo as part of "Operation Hammer Strike."

An international criminal operation

With this, some people arrested in connection with these cultures are inhabitants of areas far from the operation itself. Outside of California, the most common place of residence among the 326 people arrested by Hammer Strike to date is Mexico. A total of 35 residents of Mexico have been arrested in Hammer Strike raids so far.

At least one other non-U.S. Resident has also been caught: Kham Phomthisene, a 61-year-old resident of Southeast Asian Laos.

A variety of US states outside of California are home to other people arrested by Hammer Strike.

So far, seven people residing in Texas have been captured in High Desert, including six from Houston and a seventh from Fort Worth. Other non-Californians arrested in the raids include six Wisconsin residents – four from Milwaukee, two from Madison – and five New Yorkers, three of whom are from Brooklyn and the other two from Flushing and Oakland Groves.

Hammer Strike data shows black market activity in San Bernardino County extends far beyond the crime of “growing cannabis” for which most of those arrested are cited. However, an “arrest” in this case does not mean that someone was handcuffed and jailed due to a raid on a cannabis farm.

The grow pot is a misdemeanor in California, regardless of its scale, whether it’s a six-plant or 600-plant farm. This marks a level of decriminalization unmatched by other US states that have legalized pot to some extent, all of which have maintained a felony status for large-scale illegal producers.

As of November 14, the end of Hammer Strike’s 11th week of action, sheriff’s officers had produced more than 270 search warrants for illegal cannabis cultivation in and around the High Desert. They have recorded arrests in nearly 140 of these locations, ranging from compact indoor crops to industrial-scale operations.

Hammer Strike has also caught at least a few people on entirely separate suspicions of cannabis. A raid on a gated community in Rancho Cucamonga on November 4 led to police arresting two men – Jun Hou, 48, and Yingsheng Hou, 74 – on suspicion of child abuse and theft of electricity. the daily press previously reported.

Of the seven firearms seized by Hammer Strike agents during their fourth week of raids, one was a handgun with “the serial number removed,” the sheriff revealed at the time.

Another weapon seized earlier this month had its own “erased serial number”. This makes it impossible for law enforcement to trace crucial details about a firearm, like its last listed owner and the location where they purchased it, without extensive forensic work.

"Operation Hammer Strike" had served a total of 66 search warrants and made 84 arrests in three weeks of operation as of September 18, 2021.

Legal consequences are rare

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Gloria Huerta told the Daily Press that “very few” of those arrested had received prison terms. Instead, they got citations and were released on the spot.

California Proposition 64, which came into effect in January 2018 after being passed in a referendum in 2016, is what many High Desert residents, law enforcement officials and Republican officials say to have authorized an unfair and dangerous level of leniency in these cases.

Proposition 64 lowered California’s penalty for illegally cultivating six or more cannabis plants to a degree that no other decriminalized US state has matched.

Previously a felony anyway, illegal cultivation is now a misdemeanor in California that carries up to six months in jail and up to $ 500 in fines for most adults – although that’s still up to ‘A felony in some cases, including for repeat offenders, people with violent crimes on their record, and producers who violate state environmental laws.

Speaking to foreign and foreign residents found in various cannabis crops that Hammer Strike agents have raided on, Sheriff Lt. Marc Bracco told the Daily Press that “most of our arrests are for Mexican or Asian nationals. “.

Bracco said that the “criminal element” of international criminal groups “enjoys huge financial gains” by running illegal pot farms in California, as they risk no more than $ 500 in fines if they are caught by the police. “These types of drug trafficking organizations have low overhead on outdoor grow sites and there is no risk that they have the grow locations in (San Bernardino County) due to the regulation of our state. “

“Another factor is the interstate highways that we have in our county,” added Bracco.

The lieutenant cited highways 10, 15 and 40 as “highways commonly used to move illegal narcotics out of our state and to move illegal narcotics from the Mexican border.”

An illegal marijuana grow in an unidentified location was raided during Operation Hammer Strike.

High desert frustration

Frustrations over the rise of black market cannabis cultivation have been most evident among residents of unincorporated rural areas of the High Desert, who say farms hit them the hardest.

If the data on the Hammer Strike arrests is any indication, it is correct.

More than three-quarters of the arrests disclosed by the Sheriff’s Department took place in illegal crops in unincorporated high desert alcoves such as Phelan (48 arrests), Lucerne Valley (45), Newberry Springs (44), Pinon Hills (43), Hinkley (24) and Wonder Valley (17).

Some residents of these areas say they can see – and smell – such operations from the front porch of their home. Others tell more intense stories, including several residents at public meetings in recent months who allege gunshots were fired at them from the desert as they drove at night on distant stretches of road.

In the undeveloped Lucerne Valley, some are worried about the decrease in their sensitive water reserves and the presence of new contaminants in their soil and air.

Personal anecdotes of engagement with what they say are illegal cannabis growers in and around their desert community are also common.

Speaking at the Lucerne Valley Economic Development Association’s monthly meeting in September, a local man said a group of growers were loading water into vans from a company near his home on a frequent basis. so frequent that he learned the hours and days to watch.

Another man told the sheriff’s detective. Alex Pangburn at the meeting that the trend is making the roads in the community more dangerous for drivers and pedestrians.

“What’s going on here is a virus,” he said. “They appear faster than you can control. “

Charlie McGee covers the town of Barstow and its surrounding communities for the Daily Press. He is also a member of the Report for America corps of the GroundTruth Project, an independent, non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the United States and around the world. McGee can be reached at 760-955-5341 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.

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