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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva appeared on Fox & Friends Weekend early Saturday morning to discuss his goal of eliminating illegal marijuana farms operated by drug cartels that set up shop in the desert during the pandemic.
Even though recreational cannabis sales became legal in California in 2018, high taxes and strict regulations have resulted in a thriving black market.
Villanueva announced earlier this week that law enforcement had seized more than 16 tons of illegal pot during a 10-day operation that had an estimated street value of nearly $1.2 billion. The effort targeted the Antelope Valley in northern L.A. County, which is part of the Mojave Desert. During a press conference on Wednesday, the sheriff said he wanted to “send a clear message to the cartels and anyone doing illegal operations in the High Desert: your days are over, and we are coming for you.” He also said Asian and Armenian organized crime rings were involved in unlawful harvests in that area.
“During the pandemic year, we counted 150 of these illegal grows in the High Desert, but now in 2021, we did another survey, that number grew to 500,” Villanueva told Fox News. “The cartels moved in during the pandemic and had basically taken over large tracts of the desert floor.”
Villanueva said authorities targeted 40% of the illegal grows during the recent operation, which he called a “down payment” of the “big goal” to “eliminate the cartel operations in the High Desert area.”
“These illegals grows, obviously there’s no taxation involved, there’s no regulation, they take over open public lands, they steal the water from the local farmers, and they use all of the heavy pesticides and fertilizers which goes right into the ground and actually destroys the aquifer for the High Desert and the residential communities,” Villanueva explained. “So this is a major existential threat for the communities, so we’re doing our best to knock this out once and for all.”
Fox & Friends Weekend host Pete Hegseth asked Villanueva whether illegal operations have “ramped up massively” because “our borders are perceived to be open” due to softer policies from the Biden administration.
Partial transcript as follows:
VILLANUEVA: Whatever is going on at the border, we’re getting a steady supply of people based on human trafficking that are out there in the desert. And they’re the workers, the peons. They’re the ones that, they showed up a week later out there in the middle of nowhere tending to a farm, and a guy comes by, throws some cash at them once a month, and sadly, that’s the sad reality of this entire human trafficking thing. A lot of these people are indentured servants to the cartels, so they are almost as much of a victim as the community.
HEGSETH: So the cartel traffics them across, makes them work there, and they’re effectively indentured servants maybe sending money back home, whatever that may be, and ultimately drug is their product. Can you eradicate this, sheriff?
VILLANUEVA: We can eradicate what we can see in the High Desert, and we are well on our way to doing that. Our only limitation is just the sheer resources.
Villanueva, a Democrat, told Fox News that federal agencies “are pitching in, but apparently, there’s a rule that says that the DEA can only reimburse local law enforcement $19,000 a year in overtime, and this [operation] obviously dwarfs that, so we need to change that regulation so we can raise the bar.” He said other local agencies from neighboring counties have been working with the Sheriff’s Department, while state officials and DEA agents also assisted in the recent billion-dollar bust.