Traveling through the vast, timeless California desert, you see little sign of life. But wait! What’s that white speck in the distance? And yet another. And one more. As you get closer, you realize these are the white canopied covers of marijuana farms run by the Mexican drug cartels, who not content with pushing more drugs and migrants than ever across the porous border, have set up shop in the U.S. interior. It’s a first and by any definition an invasion, and they plan to stay. Better get used to it.
The grim gray midsummer desert demeanor wouldn’t see to offer an attractive change of life, but people are coming, some fed up with Los Angeles to the south. Home prices are rivaling Florida’s, though there’s no sparkling water or beach. For the cartels it’s a perfect setting – hot, dry and spacious. No nosy neighbors, who like the police, tend to keep their distance. Don’t make any unnecessary contact, the locals are warned. Farm occupants are not to be seen during the day, but lights burn all night with their activity. Normally very aggressive at home, they are more cautious here. Business comes first. Violence can wait.
Frank Luchino, city manager of Twentynine Palms, a town with many cartel neighbors, says every level of government and law enforcement is doing its best to remove them. But there’s a big bump in the road. When an illegal farm is discovered, it’s only a misdemeanor with a $500 fine, not even chump change for cartels whose product, including marijuana, earns close to one hundred billion dollars a year from American consumers. A more severe penalty is needed but is slow in coming.
Too slow for the citizens of the region. “It’s outrageous that this is going on and nothing is done about it,” says Liz Shickter, a manager at the historic 29Palms Inn who lives a few miles outside the town center. There are periodic raids that destroy some farms, but they are quickly replaced by others in all the available land. “I smell it,” she says of the ever-present marijuana. She notes how a complex of farms has been provocatively located in view of a U.S. Marine base – a brazen gesture since the US. military, unlike the Mexican, doesn’t belong to the cartels. Still, the U.S military is not allowed to confront the cartels. They are more or less safe.
This doesn’t account for Marine retirees and others in the area who carry guns and are good shots. In Mexico, which has very strict gun laws, the cartels don’t have to worry about the resistance of an armed citizenry, and they of course have plenty of guns with which they have given Mexico one of the world’s highest homicide rates. In the California desert, they would have to take pause. No use losing a shootout. Supreme strategists, they will figure.