RAYMONDVILLE, Texas -- On land once used to grow watermelons and grain, 8-foot tall marijuana plants swayed under a canopy of mesquite. White pipes and a pump diverted water from a canal, delivered to the 60-foot long rows by carefully excavated trenches.
Two acres of painstakingly cultivated marijuana thrived 25 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, but on the Texas side.
Tons of marijuana cross the border daily from Mexico and large-scale grow operations are routinely found in the interior U.S. — authorities dismantled a massive one in the woods about 70 miles northeast of Houston last month that yielded 100,000 plants. But such a large crop so close to the border is unheard of, authorities said.
The 11,500-plant farm found earlier this month by authorities pursuing immigrants about 15 miles southwest of Raymondville bypassed the challenges of crossing the Rio Grande, but was still south of the Border Patrol's interior highway checkpoints leading out of the Rio Grande Valley and far from its consumers.
"I haven't seen anything like this," Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence said. "I've seen where guys would hollow out a place in the brush in their backyard or something close to their house, just a little bit. But this was quite spread out and dense and most of them were already pretty high."
Last year, the Texas Domestic Cannabis Program, in which local and federal law enforcement agencies participate, eradicated 147,277 outdoor cultivated plants in 24 separate seizures, according to the Department of Public Safety.
The quality of the irrigation system impressed authorities, including Mark Dawson, the Homeland Security Investigations deputy special agent in charge of Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, who said he hadn't encountered something like this in his 17 years in the area.
"I guess we shouldn't be surprised by how well it was done considering it's the Rio Grande Valley and people down there are very experienced in irrigation and just growing (fruits and vegetables) in general," Dawson said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is leading the investigation, and Dawson said it was too early to know why the location was selected. No one has been charged yet in the growing operation.
This bust involved a bit of luck.
Nearly a mile from a paved road, on an old dairy farm long left to its own devices, the operation was hidden amid intensive agriculture. A well-kept citrus grove sat across the dirt road, and horses browsed in a pasture nearby.
The marijuana was on the back portion of the overgrown parcel; authorities had to plow a road in just to access it. Adjacent to the field of pot, small shelters were carefully camouflaged with branches and long grass held provisions: an empty case of instant noodles, scattered egg shells and a 50-pound bag of fertilizer. Nearby, a large black plastic tarp could be unfurled for shade.
The crop's owners would have soon brought in another valuable harvest if a dozen immigrants hadn't scrambled from the abandoned barn at the front of the property straight into the marijuana on Aug. 13.
The night before, a man dialed 911, Spence said, and said he had been held, beaten and threatened in a stash house for three weeks. He tried to lead sheriff's deputies back to the spot, but couldn't find it in the dark.
Authorities returned in the daylight and found more than they bargained for when they pursued the immigrants down twisting paths.
Spence speculated that the man and other immigrants were forced to care for the marijuana plants, as three weeks is an unusually long time to be held in a stash house. Three men were arrested on immigrant harboring charges, but prosecutors dropped cases against two of them Thursday and the third waived his preliminary hearing in federal court.
Javier Davila of Edinburg hadn't farmed that parcel of his family's land since 1996. He has another 40 acres next door and has told Border Patrol before that he suspected immigrants were passing through the land because he found water bottles, food cans and backpacks.
Still, the pot farm was a shock.
Asked why he thought someone would invest the time to grow it so close to the border, Davila said, "because they've got more security on the border.
"They say 'We'll grow it here and we don't have to worry about getting caught crossing it.'"
Based on reporting by The Associated Press