Mexican authorities discovered three enormous hauls of marijuana across the western states of Jalisco and Nayarit this week, including a sophisticated plantation with genetically modified crops allegedly run by a team of Colombians.
The apparent importation of expertise and the use of cloning methods indicates that Mexican marijuana producers may be responding to changes in the US consumer market by producing higher quality weed, experts and observers said. Authorities released footage of Mexican police uprooting the modified cannabis from pots dug into the ground and incinerating the plants at nighttime.
The first bust came on Saturday, July 25, when Nayarit state police discovered five vast pot plantations in the town of Rosa Blanca, close to the border with Jalisco. Officers also uprooted and incinerated the illicit crops, which reportedly weighed 149 tons and covered a space of 15,000 square meters.
The next day, Mexico's National Security Commission, or CNS, announced the discovery of three giant greenhouses full of marijuana plants in the municipality of Tlajomulco, Jalisco, southwest of Guadalajara.
Federal agents on Tuesday then seized more than five tons of weed packed into cardboard boxes and ready to be shipped off at another property in Tlajomulco.
The CNS said police arrested 25 suspects, including 22 men "who appeared to be Colombians" at the greenhouses in Tlajomulco. The suspects' names were not revealed. Authorities also did not specify when exactly the operation took place.
A CNS statement said the agency "was able to identify one Colombian as responsible for the cloning" techniques used to improve the size and quality of the herb. The commission's chief information officer, Jose Ramon Salinas, declined to answer questions about the suspects' origin when reached by VICE News.
Jesus Perez, an independent investigator of organized crime based in Jalisco, told VICE News the plantations "most likely" belonged to the Sinaloa cartel or the Jalisco New Generation cartel, known as CJNG in Spanish, given that both groups operate in the region and are known to work closely with Colombian gangs.
'Everyone knows that Jalisco is full of marijuana plantations, so why now?'
The busts come as Mexico's security forces are still reeling from the embarrassment of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's dramatic escape from a maximum-security prison earlier this month. With the authorities in need of some good publicity, Perez said he was skeptical about the timing of the raids on the plantations.
"Everyone knows that Jalisco is full of marijuana plantations, so why now? Are they trying to send a message to someone?" he told VICE News.
This week's plantation raids come at a time when the Mexican marijuana industry is in a state of flux.
Several US news reports in the last year have argued legalization of marijuana in some US states have hit Mexican cartels hard, with American consumers preferring high-grade legal bud to the inferior cannabis grown in Mexico. But a recent string of high-profile busts in Mexico show cartels are not entirely abandoning their most popular cash crop.
The Sinaloa cartel, which is headed by fugitive Guzman, has traditionally controlled the Pacific coast states where this week's finds were made. The cartel has also been known to run large-scale plantations with genetically modified weed, like the 120-hectare site found in San Quintin, Baja California, in 2011.
Yet the Sinaloa group is no longer the only major criminal force in the region.
Jalisco and Nayarit are now often considered disputed territory by the CJNG, which recently emerged as one of Mexico's most powerful criminal organizations. The CJNG has launched several brazen attacks on Mexican security forces this year, killing dozens of police, soldiers, and civilians.
The CJNG is known to operate in Tlajomulco, a sprawling municipality located on the southern outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city, where a prominent member of the cartel was arrested in late May.
The detainee, Victor Manuel Garcia Orozco, 47, was "likely responsible for drug-trafficking, gasoline theft, extortion and several attacks against the authorities from the three levels of government" in a dozen municipalities across Jalisco and the neighboring state of Michoacan, five government agencies said in a joint statement.
Surrounded by tree-lined fields, the three greenhouses had a combined floor space of approximately 6,200 square meters and were notable for their sophisticated set-up.
The greenhouses were reportedly equipped with an irrigation system to provide the plants with the right nutrients, while the temperature was regulated to ensure optimum growth conditions. Footage released by Mexico's federal police shows agents uprooting row after row of meter-high marijuana plants before torching them in an enormous bonfire after the sun had set.
In total, some 7,000 plants were seized and destroyed, from tiny shoots to man-sized shrubs.
Footage of the related busts in western Mexico.
According to the CNS, the Colombian workers were contacted by email and told that they would be paid in dollars for their labor. Once they arrived in Jalisco, a Mexican supervisor was tasked with feeding and paying them, as well as collecting the finished product.
The third haul came on Tuesday, when federal agents decommissioned more than five tons of mota in Tlajomulco's Jardines del Zapote neighborhood. The federal police announced the discovery was made as agents investigated a suspicious property on Alfonso Reyes street.
Two suspects were spotted carrying packages as they left the area, but officials said they dumped the merchandise and fled after spotting police officers. Upon entering the property, the officers discovered 999 packages containing 5.3 tons of weed.
Footage of the haul showed the packages laid in grocery boxes, ready to be loaded into several trailers that were parked in the yard.
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