$1.2 billion in illegal marijuana seized from Antelope Valley farms, authorities say

Federal agents and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies took down 205 illegal cannabis farms operating in the Antelope Valley last month, officials said, snagging $1.2 billion in illegal marijuana.

The known number of illegal farms in unincorporated areas near Lancaster exploded from around 150 to 500 in 2020, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Wednesday, July 7, during a press conference at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles.

In June, his deputies, along with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and National Guard troops, who helped with logistics and provided vehicles, descended on the 205 farms over about a week. They plan to go after the other illegal farms.

At least 16 tons of the processed drug and more than 33,000 marijuana plants were airlifted to remote sites and burned. Authorities said they arrested 131 people who were members of Mexican, Armenian or Chinese drug cartels.

“We didn’t meet any resistance at all,” Villanueva said. “Everybody just took off into the desert running when we showed up.”

All of them, the sheriff said, were captured.

Villanueva billed the operation as the largest in Sheriff’s Department history, involving more than 400 employees.

In addition to the marijuana, authorities seized dozens of weapons and vehicles, including several water trucks. Agents took away 180 animals, including five puppies.

Months before the June raids, law enforcement counted all of the farms they could identify from the air.

The sheriff said drug cartels had moved their farms from deep inside the region’s forests out into the open of L.A. County’s massive deserts in order to build out bigger and more productive growing operations.

Guiding reporters through a slideshow of equipment agents found, Villanueva said many of the farms used greenhouses covered with tarps and outfitted with lights inside that would mimic day-night cycles. Through this method, some of the cartels were able to produce four harvests last year, rather than just one.

Several killings and violent incidents were tied to the farms. Villanueva said cartel members fought each other and threatened local residents.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said her office received reports of apparent cartel members “going on other people’s property, taking over the property and threatening their lives if they try to interfere. …

“This issue is plaguing the Antelope Valley and has the potential to spread throughout Los Angeles County,” Barger said.

U.S. Representative Mike Garcia indicated that residents at a town hall meeting about illegal farms last year determined there had been a cartel member in the audience. It wasn’t clear whether that person was among those arrested during the June operation.

The elected leaders, flanked by state water and wildlife officials at the press conference, said the illegal marijuana farms were operating despite California’s Proposition 64, which legalized and created a marketplace for the drug.

The authorities said the illegal farms used pesticides that were getting into the region’s water supply. Over the year, the sheriff said, the farms stole 150 million gallons of water from nearby commercial farms or directly from pumps connected to underground sources in the drought-stricken Antelope Valley.

A California Department of Fish and Wildlife official said authorities found two bears near illegal farms that apparently died from ingesting pesticides.

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