GREEN BAY, Wis. – Federal prosecutors believe a single drug organization is behind several marijuana farms that were raided by authorities in a national forest in northeast Wisconsin.
Eight men were arrested and charged Wednesday just hours after more than 200 federal, state and local law enforcement agents raided growing plots scattered across the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Investigators also searched a house that they said had been transformed into a marijuana processing plant complete with a cache of guns.
Court documents filed late Wednesday said one drug trafficking organization was overseeing marijuana grows and employing workers on multiple sites in the forest. The documents did not name the organization or elaborate on the men's roles in it, though national forests and parks have become prime targets of Mexican drug gangs setting up expansive marijuana fields in the U.S. in recent years.
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen plans to hold a news conference about the raids Thursday.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, drug agents around the country seized about a million plants a year between 2004 and 2008. In 2008 alone, agents seized or destroyed 7.6 million marijuana plants from about 20,000 illicit plots. The number of seized plants in Wisconsin grew six-fold between 2003 and 2008, a year when more than 32,000 plants were seized.
The men arrested in Wisconsin were Genaro Avila-Rodriguez, Adalberto Valencia, Salvador Montez-Canchola, Raul Juvenal Avila-Rodriguez, Jesus DelaTorre-Avila, Javier Navarro-Zaragoza, Gustavo Barragua-Mendoza and Jorge Omar Perez-Hipolito.
Dressed in jeans and dirty T-shirts, each sat silently in federal court in Green Bay on Wednesday as U.S. Magistrate Judge James R. Sickel read them their rights and set a Friday court appearance. An interpreter translated the judge's remarks into Spanish for each of the men.
They were charged with conspiring to distribute and manufacture more than 1,000 marijuana plants, punishable by up to life in prison and a $4 million fine, and possession with intent to distribute more than 100 marijuana plants, punishable by up to 40 years in prison and $2 million in fines.
Tom Phillip, a federal defense attorney for Avila-Rodriguez and Valencia, called the government's allegations "complicated." Krista Halla-Valdes, another federal defender who represented the remaining six men, left the courtroom without speaking to reporters. Assistant U.S. Attorney Tammy Jo Hock declined comment.
The U.S. Forest Service got a tip in May from someone who claimed to have seen two Hispanic men preparing a grow site in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Investigators eventually found nine grow sites in the forest and other sites on the neighboring Menominee Indian Reservation. Investigators spent June and July watching the sites and access roads, and reported seeing groups of men emerge from the forest and load pickups with nylon sacks.
They tailed a truck to a home in Seymour, about 15 miles west of Green Bay, that the men apparently used as a base, according to court documents. Investigators raided the home late Tuesday and found marijuana plants drying in the garage and laundry room, and marijuana buds drying in all the rooms of the house. They estimated they seized about 232 plants and 200 pounds of drying marijuana, the criminal complaints said.
Authorities also found industrial-sized backpack sprayers, hand saws, shears and fertilizer, and in a bedroom found a stash of firearms including an AK-47 assault rifle.
Investigators also raided a storage unit in Seymour where they discovered a receipt for a wire transfer of $2,500 from Genaro Avilia-Rodriguez to a man in Modesto, Calif., along with several thousand dollars and 72 pounds of processed marijuana plants.
Associated Press Writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this story from El Paso, Texas.