58 held in Mexico's biggest marijuana farm bust

By Adriana Gomez Licon

Associated Press

Published: Friday, July 15 2011 9:25 p.m. MDT

Army personnel, seen through a shade net, stand at a marijuana plantation discovered near San Quintin in Baja California state, Mexico, Friday, July 15, 2011. Soldiers have found the largest marijuana plantation ever detected in Mexico, a huge field covering almost 300 acres (120 hectares), covered by shaded netting, the Defense Department said Thursday. The plantation is four times larger than the previous record discovery by authorities at a ranch in northern Chihuahua state in 1984.

Alexandre Meneghini, Associated Press

SAN QUINTIN, Mexico — Food still sat on the camp dinner table Friday, abandoned three days earlier by workers fleeing soldiers who stumbled on their lush, mesh-covered oasis stretching across the harsh Baja California desert.

Two men were caught in the camp and 56 others were rounded up in the area around what the Mexican government calls the biggest marijuana plantation ever found in the country.

Officials on Friday showed reporters the sophisticated operation, which the army says popped up in less than four months.

Army officers said the vast farm just 1½ miles (2.5 kilometers) from the main federal highway in Baja California state appeared to be the work of the Sinaloa cartel. The same gang was tied to Mexico's largest bust of marijuana packaged for sale last fall and sophisticated underground border tunnels discovered in November, both also in Baja California.

No one has been charged in the raid on the huge pot farm late Tuesday. The suspected workers are still being questioned.

Two of the men said they were from Sinaloa state, headquarters of the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted fugitive. The farm was in remote territory of the Baja peninsula, 280 miles (450 kilometers) south of Tijuana, that is believed to be controlled by Guzman's cartel.

"There are indications that these are zones of the Sinaloa cartel," said infantry Maj. Bernardo Rafael Sanchez, spokesman for the army's second region, which covers the border states of Baja California and Sonora.

Some areas of the more than half-mile-square (kilometer-square) marijuana farm resembled a nursery, with small plants. Other parts were like mature corn fields with neat rows of forest green plants rising more than six feet to a protective mesh shielding the expanse of plants. From the air, it looks like a giant square of asphalt.

Authorities believe as many as 120 men worked the farm, living in four rudimentary, plywood buildings, including a large bunkhouse with long sleeping platforms for up to 60 people, a living room and the kitchen.

Beans, cheese and salsa sat on the dinner table nearly three days after the raid, along with CDs of Norteno music. Women's lingerie and platform heels were found in one of the smaller bedrooms. Army officials said women did not appear to have worked in the fields and may have been there for "entertainment."

The army also found prepaid telephone cards and communications antennas.

Marijuana plantations this large and sophisticate are rare in Mexico, especially in Baja California, army Brig. Gen. Gilberto Landeros said.

Pot cultivation is much more common in the Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Sonora, Durango and Sinaloa states.

Federal authorities said the Baja pot farm was nearly double the size of an operation found in Sinaloa in 2007 and four times the size of the "Bufalo" farm discovered in the border state of Chihuahua in 1984. Estimates of the size of the Bufalo plantation vary widely.

The army said that troops patrol this area of arid bushland and cactus every three to four months and that the plantation was not here just a few months ago. The operators used wells for water, and tiny irrigation hoses fed every plant. There were also discarded boxes of the herbicide Gramoxone.

"At first they thought it must have been a vegetable farm," Landeros said of the soldiers who walked onto the ranch.

Army Gen. Alfonso Duarte said traffickers could have harvested about 120 tons of marijuana from the plantation, worth about 1.8 billion pesos ($160 million).

Troops have begun destroying the operation by burning the marijuana plants. Landeros said it would take a week.

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