Associated Press
This Sept. 18, 2012 file photos shows a caregiver picking out a marijuana bud for a patient at a marijuana dispensary in Denver.

While drug cartels have set their sights on Utah as a place to locate sophisticated marijuana growing operations in remote wild lands, law enforcement agencies have battled back, and there is evidence their efforts are working.

The Drug Enforcement Administration says the number of plants confiscated this year is down significantly from recent years, indicating a sharp decrease in overall operations. That is believed to be partly the result of drought conditions, but also because police agencies have chosen wisely to deploy more resources in a more cooperative fashion to attack the problem.

And a significant problem it is, given the shear number and size of such operations and the attending dangers they represent to the environment and to anyone who should happen upon a booby-trapped growing field. That problem is likely to grow, given the success of referendums in Colorado and Washington state, making the recreational use of marijuana legal.

There has been a general lessening in recent years of the penalties associated with the use of marijuana, and there are those who argue too many resources are deployed against the production and distribution of the drug. They are missing a larger point.

The growing fields are the enterprise of organized crime, and the cartel believed to be behind many of the operations in Utah is known to be among the most vicious and violent contributors to the spread of lawlessness throughout large portions of Mexico. Whatever efforts are necessary to stop that plague from gaining a foothold in Utah are clearly justified.

The La Familia cartel is known by law enforcement agencies for its uncompromising brutality and a scorched-earth policy, literally and figuratively. The group has no compunction against murder and has ravaged the acreage it steals for plantings. Trees are clear-cut and pesticides and other toxic materials are left behind after the plants are harvested.

It is good to know that federal, state and local law enforcement have combined their resources to track such operations in Utah with measurable success. This year, about 13,000 plants were seized from growing sites, compared to five times that many a year before — a clear indication of a significant decrease in the cartel's Utah investment.

Even so, drug agents know the war has not been won, and they say they will not be surprised if there is a spike in seizures next year, especially if weather patterns are more conducive to growing.

As such, it's important that surveillance and intervention efforts continue. The most effective tactic against the cartels is to disrupt their chain of production, and the most effective point of disruption is at the very site where the seeds are planted.

Criminals can only succeed if they can keep a step ahead of the authorities. There is strong evidence this year in Utah that police are keeping pace.