Four brothers kidnapped and forced to work on marijuana farm in Northern California
Los Angeles Times - By. Hailey Branson-Potts - 09/22/2016
Authorities in Northern California are investigating possible drug cartel activity after four Modesto brothers say they were kidnapped, tortured and forced to work for more than five months on an enormous, illegal marijuana farm under the threat of violence.
The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department this week announced the arrest of two women. Guadalupe “Lupe” Arrellano, 43, and Medarda “Daniella” Urbieta Estudillo, 34, were arrested Sept. 14 in Modesto and charged with human trafficking, kidnapping, battery with serious bodily injury, making terrorist threats and drug charges, authorities said.
Sheriff’s officials said they are still seeking two men in connection with the case.
In February, Arrellano picked up two men from a Modesto business known as a place where day laborers congregate, Calaveras County Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Macedo said at a news conference. She told the men she needed help working on a landscaping project at a home in Calaveras County.
The brothers worked at a home in the small, remote town of West Point for several days before being taken by force to a nearby marijuana cultivation site, where they were threatened, according to the sheriff’s office.
Arrellano got the men’s home address in Modesto and went to the residence, where she told family members that two were working for her on a marijuana farm. She offered to take two more relatives to the site, but told them that if they said anything to law enforcement, their family members would be killed, according to the sheriff’s office.
Two additional brothers went with her to the West Point site, where they were threatened by armed men, taken to their family members and forced to work on the marijuana harvest while their remaining family members in Modesto were continually threatened by the captors, authorities said.
The four men, whose names have not been released, were kept in squalid conditions, sleeping on cots outdoors. They were severely beaten for complaining about the conditions.
At one point, one of the men heard a male captor ask Arrellano whether he could kill the victims, Macedo said. Arrellano reportedly told the captors no because they were nearly done with the marijuana harvest, but that they could be killed after they finished their work. About that time, one of the captors tried to stab one of the victims, holding a gun and knife at the same time, according to the sheriff’s office.
That night, on July 27, the men escaped and ran to a West Point home, where a resident called authorities. Three of the men had “significant” visible injuries.
The injured men were taken to a nearby hospital, and one had to be taken to a trauma center because of the severity of his wounds.
On July 28, law enforcement officials from Calaveras and Tuolumne counties and federal agencies served a search warrant near Bald Mountain Road, where they located the growing operation.
Investigators found 23,245 marijuana plants with an estimated street value between $18 and $60 million, at least two firearms, multiple cellphones and $10,000 in cash.
“There was mention of cartel activity that has yet to be corroborated,” Macedo said. “There was a specific cartel mentioned, however we have not corroborated that information at this time.”
Macedo said it was a “large-scale investigation” involving numerous local and federal agencies. The amount of food stored on the marijuana growing site indicated it was a large operation, he said.
Macedo described the remote location as a “long, narrow, winding road to the middle of nowhere.”
“It can seem like you’re a world away from your home,” he said.
While authorities searched the property, one man was seen running from investigators, according to the sheriff’s department. A backpack was found along the trail on which he ran; a handgun was inside.
No arrests were made at the time of the search, but authorities in the weeks following served search warrants at multiple locations in Stanislaus County.
Authorities said they found a religious shrine to Santa Muerte, the folk saint of death popular among drug traffickers and cartels, during a search of a Modesto home linked to the case.
Macedo said Arrellano and Urbieta Estudillo were in the country illegally and were known to use several aliases.
In May, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors made it legal for farmers to grow medical marijuana for commercial sale. The urgency ordinance was enacted in part to help the struggling county recover from last year’s devastating Butte fire, which charred more than 70,000 acres, destroyed 549 homes and killed two people.
Authorities said the West Point marijuana farm was unregistered.
The legalization of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado may be a win for the state’s tax revenue, but it is also edging out the illegal marijuana markets, including the Mexican and Colombian drug cartels.
According to a 2012 study by the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness, legalization in Colorado will cost cartels $1.425 billion annually.
While Washington state’s legal market is burgeoning, the study says it would cost cartels $1.372 billion. The legalization in these two states would push the cartels’ annual revenues down 20 to 30 percent, and cut revenue to the Sinaloa Cartel by 50 percent.
On Nov. 21, federal agents raided more than a dozen legal medical marijuana facilities and two private homes. The Denver Post reported these raids have possible ties to the Colombian drug cartel.
Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, believes legal marijuana shops are at risk of being targeted by Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to explain.
How foreign cartels could get involved with legal marijuana sales
“This is the perfect storm, because from the Mexican cartel standpoint, you have a quasi-legal business operating in the United States, which is illegal in other places, so there’s a real high demand for Colorado marijuana throughout the United States. One of the primary weapons of a cartel they use to make money is, one, selling drugs, and the other one is extortion. So it’s real easy for them to come in and look at these retail stores that are making hundreds of thousands of dollars and say, ‘We want a piece of the action.’ That’s one concern. The other one is using some of these organizations to take marijuana. Well, you don’t have to worry about crossing the border, but sending east, where most of our marijuana goes to — using these as a vehicle for doing that. So that’s our big concern.”
How foreign cartels might intimidate legal U.S. pot sellers
“They’re treacherous, and there’s no way when they show me a picture of my little girl walking to school that I am going to go to law enforcement, worrying about my family or my safety or blowing up my shop or whatever it is. I mean, they’re just treacherous. They have no morals. They do what they need to do to make money, so how do I combat that? I’m not gonna go to the cops. There’s no way I’m gonna go to the cops.”
On the amount of marijuana that previously passed through Colorado
“In 2012, we tracked interdictions that are reported, and that’s voluntary reporting, and we were able to identify about three and a half tons of marijuana that was going out of Colorado to other states, particularly east states. So that has to be some of what they’re counting for, and you have to assume, of the three and a half tons, how much did we miss? The estimates are we probably missed about 80 percent, whatever, because stops are random.”
Via How & Now