MIAMI – Officers fighting networks of indoor marijuana factories took out what they called a major operation Wednesday in a secluded back room of a house where a nice older lady sold ice cream to kids.
The raid targeted a sophisticated pot-growing operation that could net more than $300,000 a year, authorities said. The woman, Juana Betancourt, sat drinking coffee, appearing calmly resigned to the bust, as local police and federal agents carted away the crop. She wouldn't comment.
Bad luck found Betancourt on a quiet suburban street, the kind that often leaves neighbors dumbfounded when officers show up.
Yet it was a case in point in the battle between law enforcement and organized crime syndicates that have moved into the indoor-growing business. Law enforcement officials from Seattle to Miami are grappling with the spread of sophisticated indoor marijuana farms, often run by ethnic gangs, that produce hundreds of pounds each year.
"You can go into any neighborhood, the nicest neighborhood you want, and the person next door could be a marijuana grower," said Mark R. Trouville, special agent in charge of the Miami office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "It really is all about the money. It's phenomenal."
The two dozen plants found at Betancourt's home, each more than 4 feet tall, are known as "mothers" — meant not so much for smoking but as sources of clones for future pot crops. The plants exude an unmistakable strong, sickly sweet smell under bright grow lights and are fed by an irrigation system. Authorities say the electricity used was stolen so the home's power bill didn't tip off investigators.
A neighbor, 42-year-old Anthony Williams, said he was shocked that the older couple across the street had such an operation — especially since they had regularly sold ice cream from a truck, often parked in front of the house — to the neighborhood children.
"That's hard to believe," Williams said, watching along with his son as cops carried bags of marijuana plants out of the house. "They are just two sweet old people. You'd never suspect them."
Betancourt and the home's other occupant, Sixto Campo, each could face up to three years in prison; Campo also declined to comment.
Their arrests are part of a coordinated local and federal law enforcement crackdown on indoor marijuana grow houses.
Last week in Seattle, authorities arrested 15 people and raided two garden shops that were part of a Vietnamese drug trafficking group accused of operating at least 19 marijuana grow houses around Puget Sound.
One San Francisco-based ethnic Chinese drug ring operated at least 50 marijuana grow houses in the Bay area that could produce pot valued on the street at $94 million, authorities claim. Major indoor marijuana rings have also been discovered recently in Atlanta, Houston and New England.
In Florida, such outfits are increasingly operated by Cuban-American crime syndicates. A Cuban-American organization based in Miami is setting up grow houses north in Gainesville, Jacksonville and even into Georgia and the Carolinas.
At a second Miami grow house raided Wednesday, the occupants had constructed two large interior rooms complete with separate air conditioning units. Three dozen plants found there were topped by whitish buds and were nearly ready for their quarterly harvest, when they would bring about $4,000 apiece, or close to $600,000 a year.
The lone unidentified man in the sparsely furnished house was handcuffed and placed in a police car before reporters were allowed in. He didn't resist arrest.
His neighbor, 75-year-old Clement Aday, said the home had been in foreclosure and was purchased about four months ago by people he rarely saw.
"There's going to be a lot more of it, because of the economy," Aday said of the pot crop. "People have to exist one way or another."