In what may be a side effect of increased border security, law enforcement officials in Texas are seeing more signs of Mexican drug cartels growing marijuana in the United States.
Several recent busts south of Dallas highlight what drug investigators describe as a growing trend: Mexican cartels setting up elaborate marijuana farms on U.S. soil to save time and money.
Earlier this month, detectives in Ellis County discovered a pot growing operation containing nearly 10,000 plants worth an estimated $24 million. Investigators said the farm had fertilizer, an irrigation system with pumps and PVC pipes to carry water to the crops and make-shift camps set up by workers hired to tend to the fields.
"It's all about the money, and they're not having to pay guys to transport it up here, taking a chance on getting caught," said Ellis County Sheriff's Lt. James Saulter.
The sheriff's office in Ellis County now has a plane that flies weekly missions to detect marijuana fields, which are often hidden under trees and even power lines to make it harder to detect them from above. The department suspects the camps are tended by migrant workers employed by the cartels.
Similar fields were discovered in 2007 in southern and western portions of Dallas County, and the DEA suspects Mexican cartels in those cases as well, although no arrests have been made.
One pot field was even found in an area behind the DEA's Dallas Office.
Investigators said it's often difficult to track the pot back to the highest levels of the cartels.
"You won't find the guys at the top of the chain anywhere around the marijuana," Saulter said.
Low-level workers often disappear into the woods as police move in, he said.