On Aug. 19, 2022, Marino Cruz Diaz, 24, of Taft, California, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for illegally cultivating marijuana in a national forest and ordered to pay more than $13,000 in restitution for damage to the land. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.
Michael Grate rushed 60 feet up the hill, gun drawn, toward Marino Cruz Diaz, who was perched on a rock outcropping, faintly whistling a warning to the others bent over the marijuana rows below.
“Police! Get on the ground!” the US Forest Service special agent yelled.
Around them ran the California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers and a Fresno County Sheriff’s detective.
“Police! Drop it! Drop the weapon,” Grate heard an officer bellow.
Behind the agent’s back was David Moreno Florez, who was gripping a short-barreled rifle styled like an AR-15, moving toward Grate.
US Forest Service officials warn that illegal cannabis cultivators are befouling federal wildlands across California with illegal irrigation, pesticides, herbicides, and mounds of rotting trash, like this dump near an unlawful pot farm in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.
It was Aug. 2, 2019, in a remote stretch of Sequoia National Forest off Greeley Fire Road. As the agents and officers fanned out, they found irrigation lines snaking toward 2,448 marijuana plants from Mill Creek, a Winchester shotgun, tangles of chicken wire, and 24 boot prints stomped into the dirt from the trail to the illegal pot farm.
Although it can grow as a weed, marijuana cultivation inside federal forests is an outlawed but labor-intensive operation that spans nearly an entire year. Locations far from law enforcement patrols and recreational visitors are scouted in the winter, with an eye on soil under snow that melts early, near a creek or pond, so the growers can raise a second cannabis crop before the ice comes.
They’ll stash fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in drop points between the trail and the farm. Laborers and armed guards will erect a campsite, hire “lunch men” to bring them food and supplies and take out the harvested, dried, and packaged pot.
The growing operation run by Moreno Florez and Cruz Diaz was like all the rest, except they had months of farming left to do, so there weren’t the large mounds of graded dirt, trash, propane tanks, toxic chemicals, human waste, garbage, rat poison, and moldering food scraps that get abandoned to befoul streams and tempt hungry bears and other wildlife to eat the refuse.
Carbofuran, a deadly pesticide, is found at an illegal marijuana grow site in the Sierra National Forest near Madera, California, on May 22, 2018. Research from the the Integral Ecology Research Center in Blue Lake, California, shows that signs of the banned toxin are at 78 percent of all known grown sites. California Counterdrug Task Force photo by Sgt. Lani Pascual.
The two men never realized that federal, state, and county investigators had been staking out their farm for weeks, with license plate readers and trail cameras recording everyone coming and going from the cannabis camp.
And now, more than three years later, it’s all come to an end for them.
Over the past two weeks, US District Judge Jennifer L. Thurston sentenced Cruz Diaz, 24, to 10 years behind bars for illegally cultivating marijuana in a national forest — the minimum federal sentence. Moreno Florez got 12, two extra years because he was caught with the rifle.
Each man also must pay $13,286.33 in restitution for destroying forest land. They could’ve spent the rest of their lives in a penitentiary, but they inked plea deals with federal prosecutors four months earlier.
The attorneys for Cruz Diaz, 24, and Moreno Florez, 28, didn’t respond to Coffee or Die Magazine's requests for comment.
A black bear is spotted at an illegal marijuana grow site in the Sierra National Forest near Madera, California, on May 22, 2018. Bite marks on a bottle of carbofuran, found at the same site, means the bear potentially died from exposure to the toxin. Only 1/8 teaspoon of the pesticide can kill a 300-pound black bear. California Counterdrug Task Force photo by Sgt. Lani Pascual.
The sentencing hearings for both men came amid growing calls from lawmakers to sluice more money to law enforcement to crack down on cannabis farms inside the federal forests.
Although California legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and recreational pot two decades later, the US Forest Service estimates roughly 90% of all unlawful cannabis cultivation on federal lands occurs in the Golden State.
In late 2017, local, state, and federal law enforcement launched a 12-month effort, called Operation Forest Watch, to reclaim California’s federal lands from pot producers. They arrested 77 suspects, seized 82 firearms, destroyed 638,370 pot plants and another 25,334 pounds of processed weed, and impounded 20,000 pounds of chemicals.
US Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican from Richvale, California, said the growers quickly returned, and they’re increasingly falling under the control of Mexican cartels that want to compete with the state’s regulated marijuana makers. He’s urging lawmakers to make it tougher on criminals using federal land to produce pot.
“Trash, illegal pesticides, human waste and fuel cover the ground that has been scraped bare of organic matter with nothing but dust left,” he said during a July 15 address to Congress. “These grow sites are poisoning our magnificent natural landscape and compromising the safety of North State people. This level of criminality cannot be tolerated.”
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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