A federal warning to beware of campers in national forests who eat tortillas, drink Tecate beer and play Spanish music because they could be armed marijuana growers is racial profiling, an advocate for Hispanic rights said Friday.
The warnings were issued Wednesday by the U.S. Forest Service, which is investigating how much marijuana is being illegally cultivated in Colorado’s national forests following the recent discovery of more than 14,000 plants in Pike National Forest.
“That’s discriminatory, and it puts Hispanic campers in danger,” said Polly Baca, co-chairwoman of the Colorado Latino Forum.
Forest Service officials said they believe illegal immigrants are being brought to Colorado by Latin American drug cartels for mass cultivation of marijuana.
Michael Skinner, a law enforcement officer with the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado, said warning signs of possible drug trafficking include “tortilla packaging, beer cans, Spam, Tuna, Tecate beer cans,” and campers who play Spanish music. He said the warning includes people speaking Spanish.
The warning signs were included in a slide presentation put together for drug agents in Colorado and the public.
Skinner said this may or may not represent criminal activity, but are indicators and he urged any campers who encounter long-term campers meeting the profile to “hike out quickly” and call police.
The Drug Enforcement Administration Friday announced that it found 14,500 marijuana plants growing in a Colorado national park, the latest in a series of such finds in national parks that authorities say are linked to Mexican drug cartels.
Authorities say they have seen an increase in outdoor marijuana operations run by Mexican drug cartels. In the past several months, federal agents have found nearly $55 million worth of pot plants in national parks and on federal lands in California, Colorado and Idaho.
On Thursday, authorities closed a section of Sequoia National Park in California so they could destroy marijuana plants discovered near a cave filled with crystals that is a popular tourist stop. Most of the marijuana already had been harvested. Authorities estimated the plants were worth more than $36 million.
In June, federal authorities seized 2,250 marijuana plants from California’s Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreational Area. That same month, hikers in Idaho found a site with 12,545 pot plants.
In the most recent Colorado case, the marijuana was found in “the remote, rugged terrain” of Pike National Forest, which is about 60 miles southwest of Denver. The DEA said it is the largest outdoor marijuana-growing operation ever found in Colorado, with an estimated value of $5 million.
“The persons who were involved in this criminal activity had no regard for the damage caused to the forest and environment by the waste they left behind,” said Jeffrey D. Sweetin, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Denver office. “The public’s safety is also at risk for those who recreate on our public lands due to these trafficking groups operating there.”
Authorities say they learned of the marijuana site from a passer-by. DEA said Mexican migrant workers had been recruited to work at the site and harvest plants, which were between 4 feet and 6 feet high.
Mr. Sweetin said growing marijuana on public land in the United States has become attractive to drug cartels as increased border security has made it more difficult to smuggle large quantities of marijuana into the U.S.
“The impacts are numerous,” said Gill Quintana, head of the U.S. Forest Service’s Denver branch.
He said these include “damage to the lands due to clearing the areas to prepare the garden site, trash left behind, chemicals used to grow the crop [seeping] into the watershed, and the public-safety issues associated with the recreating public coming in contact with these organizations while they’re operating on our national lands.”
Earlier this month, investigators in California said they were looking for marijuana growers tied to a Mexican drug cartel that they suspect of igniting the La Brea fire that charred more than 88,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest in the remote Santa Barbara County mountains northwest of Los Angeles.
The fire, which erupted Aug. 8, is thought to be the first major wildfire in the state caused by drug traffickers, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman said.