LOS ANGELES – A juvenile arrested for tending marijuana crops in California told investigators he had been forced to work for illegal pot growers to pay off his debt to an immigrant smuggler, authorities said Monday.
Ventura County sheriff's Sgt. Mike Horne said he was concerned such forced labor of young migrants could become a trend on marijuana plantations.
"If this works out for growers because they are saving money, then it will become a trend," Horne said. "It isn't right."
The 16-year-old Mexican national was arrested July 27 at a pot field near the town of Fillmore in the sprawling Los Padres National Forest.
He told authorities a smuggler had helped him across the border in Arizona about two weeks earlier, and he was then taken directly to the grow site and forced to work. He was arrested with three older growers.
"He's just a baby, he didn't know what to think," Horne said. "He didn't have much choice."
A 17-year-old suspect declined to speak with investigators. He was arrested July 20 in an area near the rural town of Ojai.
Horne said it was the first case he knew about in Ventura County in which a juvenile had been forced to work on a pot farm. Marijuana growers tend to be in their 20s, he said.
Michelle Gregory, a spokeswoman for the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, was not aware of her agency ever arresting juvenile immigrants for tending marijuana crops.
"Hopefully, it's not an upcoming trend," she said.
A marijuana eradication task force in California has chopped down more than two million plants this year, a number likely to increase more than threefold by the end of the growing season next month, Gregory said.
In Los Angeles County, narcotics Detective Robert Wagner could only recall one case two years ago when a juvenile grower was arrested.
Convicted growers can face six months in jail, three months probation and deportation if they are in the U.S. illegally.
Lured by the prospect of making thousands of dollars each growing season, many growers return to take their chances year after year.
"It looks good to them so they take the risk," Wagner said.
Wagner said suspected growers often tell him they were picked up outside a day labor center or from a street corner and whisked into the forest with no idea where they were headed.
When they get to the grow site, usually in a remote location, they are unable to make their way back into town and have little choice except to look after the crop in hopes of getting paid at the end of the season, Wagner said.
"They are kind of stuck," he said. "They kind of are just dumped out there."