Two years ago, I was driving through the Mohave desert in southern California when I came upon an assortment of white canopied structures as far as the eye could see. What were they doing in this arid zone? They were illegally growing marijuana under the watchful eye and stern control of Mexican drug cartels – a patch of violent-prone Mexico transferred to the U.S. Don’t get too close, residents warned, or they will come out with guns and threaten you. As in Mexico, shootouts occur among rivals and dead bodies are a familiar sight. These alien occupants steal water from people in a parched land, destroy wildlife with overuse of pesticides and undercut legal American growers by avoiding taxes and burdensome regulations. A cartel paradise courtesy of the U.S.
But fortunately, not to last. On a recent trip back to the desert, these marijuana farms had altogether disappeared, not one to be seen wherever I looked. It seemed like magic but was the result of hard tedious work. People were fed up with the costly, dangerous cartel intrusion and officials of sprawling San Bernardino County acted accordingly. Sheriff Shannon Discus organized a task force with heavy machinery to smash green houses, machetes to cut plants and guns for protection that steadily eliminated one farm after another. By now some thousands have been destroyed containing over a million plants. The desert is back to normal.
And what a desert! Its austere serene beauty is fit for more than marijuana. How about tourism instead? A manager of a popular inn located in the pleasant town of Twenty-nine Palms says she can live in a bubble now undisturbed by outside commotion. Just add a fancy restaurant to traditional digs and here come the guests. A staffer at the same inn says life may be easier now for a close friend who made the mistake of leasing some land at $2,000 a month to friendly Mexicans who turned out to be cartel toughs, a familiar transaction in these parts where land is cheap. At the first sign of inquiring police they fled with all the equipment they could take ahead of demolition.
On my first trip I visited a dot of a desert town called Landers where a post office marks the center. There two apparently anxious women were discussing in hushed voices the latest doings of the local cartels. As elsewhere homeowners were possibly outnumbered and definitely outgunned by the intruding Mexicans who treated them, well, like Mexicans. So what if they were Americans. The land actually belonged to Mexico before it was appropriated by the U.S. in the 1840’s war with Mexico. Some cartel leaders want it back. The marijuana invasion is a start.
Today the once near deserted post office is bustling with activity. The farms are gone, says a relaxed resident who notes that the remains of one can be found down a dirt road at the foot of a nearby mountain. There I observed the hulk of a greenhouse that had seen better days of a prospering cartel. Elsewhere remains of farms consisted of heaps of ruble. Demolition had been thorough, making the emphatic point that the illicit growers should not think of returning.
While a cloud has lifted for the people of the Mohave desert, the drug cartels have suffered a genuine setback. This at a time when they are making aggressive advances on the border with drugs and migrants. They are virtually unstoppable. San Bernardino shows they can be stopped and furnishes an example. The outraged people of the county made their concerns clear to county officials. If nothing was done, they could take the law into their own hands. Indeed that’s a western tradition. Law enforcement got the message and went to work. There is much more work to be done as cartel farms continue to spread in California, Oregon and elsewhere.
Appalled by cartel violence, some hawkish Republicans talk of bombing drug labs in Mexico and other kinds of military action. It makes more sense to clean up the U.S. first, from eliminating all the marijuana farms to disrupting cross country drug and human traffic to closing the now open border. Hit the cartels where it hurts in the pocketbook. Their existence depends on U.S sales. Cut them, and the cartels may be weakened to the point that besieged Mexicans can finally rebel the way San Bernardino did.