Jim Molesa, a Flagstaff-based agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are behind the Arizona marijuana grows.
"They were in California," Molesa said of similar operations in the past. "There's big money behind this."
But federal, state and local law enforcement in California began a number of cultivation-eradication operations "and basically ran them out of California," Molesa said. He added that Arizona appeared to pose a "path of least resistance" that Mexican drug traffickers believed would not be as tough on eradication efforts.
Marijuana grown in the United States offers one major boon, Molesa said. There is less danger of the product getting seized during border crossing, and traffickers can make more money by cutting out a middle person who smuggles the product over the border.
According to the DEA Web site, 810,000 pounds of marijuana were seized by federal authorities in 2005.
On the streets of Flagstaff, marijuana sells for $20 to $25 a quarter ounce, according to information from the metro anti-narcotics task force. Broken into such an amount and sold, the total federal seizures would have a street value between $1.04 billion and $1.29 billion.
It's easier, and cheaper, to smuggle seeds into the country from Mexico, Molesa said.
Molesa said the major concern to law enforcement and criminal justice authorities is that the groups who finance the grows are violent and dangerous.
"Folks out in the forest who stumble across these operations can be accosted, victimized or assaulted," Molesa said, adding that some operations even booby trap their grows with fishing lines and hooks or even explosive devices.
Molesa said DEA's focus is to find more than just the gardeners, who are smuggled across and placed into a type of indentured servitude, but the people ultimately responsible are smart enough to distance themselves from the grow, Molesa said.
Last year's grows discovered in nearly the same area are still under investigation, Molesa said. Agents continue to work their way up the chain to find out who is ultimately responsible.
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