The Green Invasion: How cartel grow ops have infested U.S. public lands, and the unlikely heroes waging war against them
"We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto."
The shot that dropped “Mojo” shattered the silence of the woods above Los Gatos, California.
It was the only shot that the cartel growers landed, but it did a lot of damage: The AK bullet ripped through both of Mojo’s legs, tumbling through skin, muscle and tendons, exiting his right thigh and entering his left.
“I’ve been hit!” Mojo screamed. “The bastard shot me! I’m shot!”
Bleeding from four bullet holes, Mojo collapsed beside his partner, Lieutenant John Nores. Who, immediately started trauma medicine on his bleeding partner, as bullets began flying all around.
“There were a lot of heavily armed cartel gunmen in there, in full battle dress uniform; AK 47’s, sawed off shotguns, pistols,” Nores recalls. It was around harvest time, so the grow was even more heavily guarded than usual, he says. And it was much, much bigger than their intel had originally suggested. “It felt like jungle warfare, in Vietnam or Afghanistan.”
But, this was on home soil; in Silicon Valley, no less. Nores says, from that ridge where the cartel had dug in, he could see the headquarters of Facebook, Google and several other high-profile tech companies in the distance.
“That was the real eye opener,” Nores says. “That told me: we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. This is nuts.”
In that moment, Mojo (which was the officer’s codename) had become the first law enforcement serviceman in U.S. history to have ever been shot by a cartel grow operator on U.S. soil. And it just so happened, that it was also Mojo’s very first grow operation raid with the California Fish and Wildlife Service.
That’s right — these weren’t DEA agents; they weren’t FBI or Homeland Security and they weren’t with any kind of local SWAT. These were Fish and Wildlife game wardens.
Lieutenant Nores engaged the suspect who had shot Mojo, firing three shots from his M14 assault rifle before the man disappeared, likely wounded (but never to be seen again). Then Nores stooped over his partner and continued tending to Mojo’s wounds — gunshots pierced the forest all around them for what felt like an eternity.
But in reality, the firefight only lasted twenty seconds.
“We then waited over two long hours for an air rescue,” Nores says. All the while, cartel growers scurried around in the bushes surrounding them, trying to escape. Or were they trying to flank the officers? It was impossible to tell. Everyone kept their guns at the ready, their breath baited, in a state of high-alert and high anxiety, while Mojo fought off shock and Nores tried to keep him from bleeding out.
John Nores, who has been with California Fish and Wildlife for decades, says that it was the craziest day of his career.
Lt. John Nores, out in his natural habitat.
The “Elite California Special Operations Marijuana Enforcement Team”
Of course, none of this had been part of the job description when Nores had originally signed up with California Fish and Wildlife. Game wardens typically spend their days checking people’s fishing licenses or making sure hunters aren’t poaching. They patrol America’s public lands, making sure that game is safe and that people are playing by the rules; taking care of America’s wilderness.
But in 2004 when John Nores stumbled upon his very first cartel grow operation on public land, things started to change. To his disgust and dismay, he found the grow utterly trashed: they had dumped illegal poisonous pesticide pollutants haphazardly, and were indiscriminately killing animals; they were diverting water, running creeks dry and dumping garbage everywhere. It was an environmental disaster and Nores was horrified by it.
Then, he found another. And another. And another after that. “These guys are the biggest wildlife destroyers and water polluters we have ever seen,” he says.
It would only be a year later, in 2005, up on that fateful ridge outside Los Gatos, when Nores, Mojo and several other of their law enforcement peers stumbled into their first gunfight.
But it wouldn’t be their last.
“When my partner was shot and almost died in my arms, I realized that there was nothing more important in my career than to see this problem exposed and stopped at every level possible.”
After that Los Gatos gunfight, when the cartel members had been dealt with and the airlift had finally departed with Mojo onboard, Nores’ had an epiphany. They needed to change the way they were going about things. These trespass grows were a special problem that required special forces to be dealt with.
So, upon Nores’ return, he started gathering the support he needed to put together a group of tactically trained special operations game wardens; a military-like division of wildlife officers, schooled in the arts of cartel ass-kicking and environmental reclamation: the Elite California Special Operations Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET).
Lt. Nores oversees sniper training.
Officially established in 2014 this was the CDFW's first comprehensive wilderness special operations tactical and sniper unit, dedicated to combatting the marijuana cartel's decimation of California's wildernesses. And over the next several years they encountered thousands of Mexican cartel members and have busted hundreds of illegal grows.
“So few people really know the magnitude of this issue,” Nores says. “And everyone has a reason to care about this, because it is our country, our environmental resources, our wildlife and waterways, our public safety and the outdoors that are at stake.”
It's the reason he and his comrades kept going back into the woods, into the line of fire: Those are pristine American lands; they belong to all of us. And these dyed-in-the-wool game wardens weren’t about to let some of the most ruthless and violent gangs on Earth, destroy them for their own profit.
Sadly, though, this isn’t just a problem that is unique to California. Nores says, illegal cartel grows are cropping up on public lands all across the country.
Including right here in Colorado.
MET in training.
A nation-wide problem
“In California, we conservatively estimate there's somewhere between three and six thousand clandestine cartel trespass grows in our open lands, public or private,” Nores says. “And it does happen in Colorado, also. And it happens in Arizona and it happens in New Mexico, Michigan, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Indiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas…”
Anywhere there’s open space and a climate ripe for farming, the cartel has likely set up shop. And they could care less about the environmental impacts of their operations in these places.
“[The cartel] has this mentality that they live in the woods, so they live like they own our woods. And it's a horrible reality.” Nores says.
The grows are almost ubiquitously littered with garbage (that the growers never had any intention of packing out). There is also a lot of human waste; they divert creeks to irrigate their plants, leaving aquatic life to dry up and die en masse; they trap and kill animals that disturb their crops; they hunt illegally and often install booby traps to kill anyone or anything that stumbles upon them (including hikers, bikers and law enforcement); they leave propane and dump toxic fertilizers.
Vietcong-style pungee pit booby trap, ready to swallow any unlucky hiker, animal or game warden unlucky enough to stumble upon it. Image courtesy of John Nores.
A cartel grower poses, holding up a poisoned golden eagle. Image courtesy of John Nores.
But, perhaps the worst aspect (environmentally speaking) about these trespass grows are the pesticides they use; one in particular that’s called Metaphos. This chemical nerve-agent has been banned by the EPA for over 20 years in the U.S., but it’s still available in Mexico. It is industrial strength concentrate that is intended to be heavily diluted, but rarely is on Cartel marijuana farms.
This stuff kills everything it touches, not just insects: birds, reptiles, mammals, you name it. And it goes directly onto the bud.
Mataphos, one of the most toxic and environmentally poisonous pesticides commercially available. Image courtesy of John Nores.
“Two tablespoons of that can kill a 400-pound black bear in minutes. Four tablespoons poured into a creek will kill five miles of every living aquatic thing in that stream,” says Nores. “You look at the toxicity of that type of product and know that it's being used at every grow site that these cartel growers operate, and the environmental impacts of that are so pervasive, extend so much further beyond the grow.”
Nores went so far as to call it a form of “eco-terrorism.” Even the title of his first book, War in the Woods and his most recent one, Hidden War, suggest that this is actually a war being waged right in the U.S., out of sight in our public lands.
Which, might sound like a stretch, or an exaggeration. But when you consider the scale of this issue and how widespread it is, with thousands and thousands of cartel grow operations spread out across BLM, National Forests, State Parks and other public (and private) land all over the country, it does seem like an invasion of sorts — a green invasion.
And the bud coming out of these farms? You really don’t want to smoke it. Not just because the quality can’t stand up to what you’ll find in a dispensary, but because those noxious pesticides they put on the flower go straight into your lungs when you burn it.
Sadly, though, a lot of Americans don’t have an alternative. Because cannabis is still unregulated at a federal level and still illegal in many states, there is still a thriving black market for cannabis. And according to Nores, 80-percent of the cannabis that is sold on America’s black market, comes from public land in California.
“Most of that is grown by the cartels,” Nores says. “And a lot of it is poison.”
Cannabis plant doused with Metaphos, a highly toxic pesticide. Image courtesy of John Nores.
Kill the black market
So, what can be done to put a stop to all this?
Nores says that exposure and education are the two solutions he’s most focused on right now. Nores retired from the MET in 2018, after over a decade trying to scrub the wilderness of these trespass grows. The torch has been passed on (to officers like Mojo, who, did in fact return to the MET after he recovered).
Now, Nores is just trying to spread the word about this issue, writing books, giving talks, consulting with other law enforcement agencies and speaking out on social media (check out @johnnores on the Gram). His website is full of good updates and information, as well.
The cover of Nores' new book, Hidden War. Image courtesy of John Nores.
Ultimately, though, this issue comes down to the black market. Educating the public, cultivating outrage, spreading the word are all positive policies. They expose the issue, and more public awareness can help get more resources allocated to teams like the MET.
But those “solutions” don’t do much to treat the problem at its source. As long as there is a black market for cartel growers to cash in on, there will be illegal grows in our public lands.
“Take cannabis out of the equation,” Nores says. “If cherry tomatoes were illegal, and going for four-thousand dollars a pound on the black market, we’d be having gunfights over cherry tomatoes.”
Which really strikes the nut of this whole discussion. The cartels are fueled by the black market and the black market is fueled by the prohibition of cannabis. Legalize and regulate that, and you’ll kill the black market where it stands; pulling the rug out from under the cartels and eliminating the need for them to set up their trespass grows in the first place.
But even that solution isn’t without its holes, Nores points out. The cartel’s trespass grows wouldn’t all just disappear overnight – even if the federal cannabis prohibition ended today. It would be a drawn out process and they likely wouldn’t have the courtesy to clean up their mess on the way out.
“Being a realist and watching politics play in the cannabis world, for the last 30 years, I know how this game is played,” Nores says. “It moves very, very slow. And it's really hard to get the cannabis industry unified and everybody committed to the same goal.”
Hopefully, though, protecting our nation’s public lands, our pristine wildernesses, our open spaces, is a goal that the cannabis industry and policy makers can rally around. Because no one wants violent cartel pot farmers growing shitty pot all over our country, littering, poisoning, devastating our environment, shooting game wardens and killing our wildlife.
Putting a stop to that should be a cause everyone can get behind.