San Juan County's biggest pot bust 'only a fraction' of growing on Navajo Nation

Police seized 2,000 pounds of suspected marijuana, with an estimated street value of $2.8 million

November 2, 2020

ARMINGTON

Three weeks ago, Farmington police and San Juan County sheriff's deputies got a tip about a man moving a truckload of marijuana into a budget motel on the west side of town.

When they began knocking on doors at the Travel Inn on Oct. 8, they could hardly believe their eyes: Numerous rooms had been converted into a makeshift assembly line for processing cannabis.

Officers waded knee-deep through piles of buds and discovered 17 Chinese men and women hard at work pruning the plants.

Police seized 2,000 pounds of suspected marijuana, with an estimated street value of $2.8 million. It was the biggest marijuana bust ever in San Juan County, according to Sheriff Shane Ferrari.

"What we found in there was only a fraction, maybe 25 percent of what they're growing in a single greenhouse on the reservation," he said.

If investigators determine that figure is accurate, it could mean the Shiprock farms are capable of growing thousands of tons of illegal marijuana, potentially worth billions of dollars.

Over the past year, local Navajo farm board President Dineh Benally has overseen the creation of a vast network of industrial-scale black-market cannabis farms that now stretch across the Shiprock Chapter.

Over 1,000 workers from predominantly Chinese neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York have arrived on the reservation to manage and work the farms.

Hundreds of cannabis greenhouses have been built atop 36 farms traditionally dedicated to corn, a staple food that is central to Navajo ceremonies. The transformation of the land has created simmering resentments across the community.

Navajo police overwhelmed

As of Oct. 20, Navajo Nation police have made 38 arrests, issued nearly 300 citations and seized what Chief Phillip Francisco described as "thousands of pounds of marijuana" — a quantity so vast that the police department has run out of storage space in its evidence lockers.

A Navajo court issued a temporary restraining order Sept. 18, ordering the closure of the farms, and on Oct. 28 the tribal government filed a lawsuit against 33 Navajo farmers who had leased their land to cannabis growers.

Still, five farms remain in operation, Francisco said, and a steady stream of workers continues to process the plants.

One of those workers was Qinliang Wang, who recently arrived in New Mexico eager to begin a job "trimming flowers." Wang was among those arrested at the Travel Inn three weeks ago.

"I lost my job in California because of the pandemic back in March," he said in Mandarin Chinese, two days before his arrest. "My ancestors have been farmers for generations. When a friend told me about this work opportunity, I thought it would be perfect. Nobody told me it was illegal. Nobody told any of us workers it was illegal."

Wang, a former restaurant worker in California, moved to the U.S. from China's Hubei Province in 2014. Like many of the 1,000 or so Chinese laborers who came to New Mexico this year, he learned about the work opportunity through a friend.

Other workers were recruited through "job agencies" in East Los Angeles and Queens, N.Y.

Labor advocates say these agencies are common in Chinese immigrant communities and often serve to entrap workers in exploitative jobs.

Wang said he didn't learn that the farms had been declared illegal until after his arrival in New Mexico.

Wang and his 16 co-workers were booked into the San Juan County jail and have since been released.

Felony charges

They face felony drug-trafficking and conspiracy charges, carrying the possibility of more than a decade in prison, according to attorney Sarah Field of the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender.

As of Oct. 27, Wang had not met with an attorney. He said he did not understand the charges that have been filed against him.

"These clients are at a disadvantage because they don't have the luxury of being able to talk to us about their case," Field said, adding that the Public Defender's Office will represent only one of the 17 workers.

The rest will be represented by private attorneys.

"Our hands are really tied" without an interpreter, which the office has yet to find, Field added.

Documents and contracts show the project's organizers deceptively presented the farms as legal ventures, enticing low-income residents of predominantly Chinese immigrant neighborhoods in Southern California to join up as laborers or investors.

Left penniless

Some of the investors said they mortgaged their homes, cashed in their retirement accounts or borrowed from loan sharks on the promise of high returns.

One investor, who identified himself only as "Mr. Zhang," said he poured $220,000 into a small plot of cannabis farmland in Shiprock, compromising his life savings and listing his house in Los Angeles as collateral on high-interest loans.

"We are not rich people," Zhang said in Chinese, speaking from the trailer he shared with six other farmworkers. He left his wife and two young children in California with the promise that he would return with money for the family. Now, their savings have gone up in smoke and his wife has left him.

"I am homeless now," he said, explaining that he only had enough money left to buy one loaf of bread per day from a dollar store. "I haven't had a bath for eight days. How can I live this way? I don't have face to meet my friends and relatives."

Federal investigators descended on the Navajo Nation following last month's Searchlight New Mexico story detailing illegal marijuana cultivation, child labor and worker exploitation. Agents from the U.S. State Department's human trafficking unit are now investigating the farms.

On Oct. 16, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico, formally requesting an investigation into "disturbing reports" of labor exploitation and interstate drug trafficking.

Most of the workers have since returned to California and New York, according to interviews with at least 10 Chinese farm laborers and investors. But hundreds still remain.

Some are stranded in the high desert of New Mexico, left to fend for themselves after their supervisors fled without paying them their wages; others spend their days crowded into a trailer park on the outskirts of Farmington, clinging to the hope that they might still recoup a part of their investment. Still others are hiding on the reservation, sleeping in the woods that line the San Juan River, according to residents.

"It's really heartbreaking," Ferrari said. "These workers aren't drug dealers. I truly think that they've been duped."

Organizers avoid capture

All the operation's organizers remain at large — including Benally, who fled the area and is presumed to be in hiding, Francisco said.

Law enforcement officials are working to identify the other organizers of the operation.

"The Chinese investors have lost millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars," said Mike Chen, another worker, who was not arrested. "Dineh Benally is a liar and a fraud."

Irving Lin, who was formally one of Benally's primary business associates, stated in an Oct. 7 affidavit that Benally told him "the farming is continuing and will continue" despite the court order to stop. Navajo police said the same thing in a separate affidavit, according to the Navajo Times.

Benally's attorney, David Jordan, did not respond to requests for comment.

Still operating

Meanwhile, many of the farms continue to operate. Video shows hydroponic irrigation equipment nourishing lush cannabis plants, and neighbors report that most nights, under the cover of darkness, Chinese workers slip onto the farms and harvest the crops by flashlight.

Francisco confirmed those reports.

Navajo police set up a hotline for residents to report violations of the restraining order. But without jurisdiction to arrest non-Natives, tribal police have been unable to fully prevent the Chinese workers from continuing to grow and harvest marijuana inside the enormous greenhouses.

Neighbors take action

Angered by what they perceive as an inadequate response by tribal law enforcement, neighbors and traditional corn farmers have begun patrolling the neighborhoods where the cannabis farms remain active, staking out farms throughout the night and reporting their sightings to tribal police.

"I think the cops are tired of hearing from us," said Michael Roy, a resident of the village of Cudei, near Shiprock, who patrols the roads near his home on foot, a billy club in his pocket and a camera in his hand.

"The police are really not taking this serious enough. We keep reporting to them like they asked us to, but it hasn't made a difference."

"Even as we talk right now, they are still harvesting," said Zachariah Ben, a corn farmer who on a recent night joined a group of Shiprock residents — some carrying baseball bats, stun guns and other weapons — outside a cannabis farm where they saw workers harvesting marijuana.

When the group called Navajo police, an officer instructed the irate crowd to leave.

"It is such a disappointment," Ben said, explaining he and other cannabis opponents see the farms as a threat to Navajo sovereignty and culture.

"We are the laughingstock of other tribes because we can't stop this from happening. But as soon as the foreign workers step foot off the reservation, there are sheriffs and police waiting for them."

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.

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