NEWBERRY SPRINGS — Along a dusty dirt road in this Mojave Desert outpost 20 miles east of Barstow, U.S. postal worker Jessica Garcia stopped at the few houses dotting Morgan Lane and unloaded packages from the back of her 4-wheel-drive Jeep Wrangler.

On this day, the pungent odor of marijuana was not wafting in the air, at least not on Morgan Lane. But it certainly was elsewhere — at the all-too-familiar marijuana compounds with padlocked front gates and pot grows concealed by chain-link and plywood fencing and black or green mesh fabric screening.

“I have been working for the post office for a year now. Driving the route, you smell it while you’re driving by,” said Garcia, 39, delivering mail at a home that just a week before had been raided by San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies. More than 1,000 pot plants and 16 pounds of processed marijuana were seized from the residence. Four people were arrested.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team served search warrants at several residences in Phelan, Calif. on Thursday, June 21, 2018. (Sarah Alvarado for The Cannifornian/The Sun)

Although California law now allows the use of both recreational and medical marijuana, cultivation and sales of the drug can be strictly regulated by cities and counties. And in unincorporated San Bernardino County, marijuana cultivation for commercial purposes is prohibited.

In the past five years, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Marijuana Enforcement Team has seized nearly half a million marijuana plants and nearly 17,000 pounds of processed marijuana from across the High Desert region, mostly in the areas of Newberry Springs, Phelan and Lucerne Valley — all pot-growing meccas for people seeking fortune in the booming industry.

“The High Desert area is definitely our busiest area for marijuana grows. They are spread throughout the county, but the highest concentration is the High Desert,” said Sgt. Rich Debevec, who heads the Marijuana Enforcement Team.

Remote location ideal for illegal pot farms

Since 2012, marijuana cultivation has ramped up in Newberry Springs, an alfalfa and pistachio farming community off Highway 40 known for the Bagdad Cafe, of the cult classic German film namesake. Debevec said the community’s remote location and cheap property make it ideal for illegal pot growing.

“They hear you can go to Newberry Springs and live and make some money,” Debevec said. “When you’re going to grow that many marijuana plants, it’s pretty easily detected, so the farther out, the better for them.”

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team served search warrants at homes in Phelan, Calif. on June 21, 2018. (Sarah Alvarado for The Cannifornian/The Sun)

Many locals appear indifferent to the increasing number of marijuana farms popping up in their community and are becoming immune to the presence of law enforcement, which shows up for raids in SUVs, pickups with trailers hitched behind and, sometimes, helicopters hovering overhead.

“They come in caravans,” said Bagdad Cafe employee Michael Wright, a 42-year resident of Newberry Springs. He said there is no escaping the strong odor of fresh-cut marijuana piled in trailers as law enforcement hauls it away for destruction after a raid.

“You can smell it as they drive by. Some of it’s flying out the top,” Wright said. Locals, he said, often scavenge for any trace of marijuana left behind at the raided properties.

In Phelan, about 16 miles west of Hesperia, a sheriff’s MET raid on June 21 netted more than 3,100 plants from four domed greenhouses, an outbuilding and an outdoor garden at a home on Pacific Road and 932 pounds of processed marijuana from three residences. Fifteen people were arrested by MET deputies assisted by the California National Guard Counterdrug Task Force.

Chinese immigrants arrested

Many of the growers arrested in recent years have been Chinese nationals, raising questions about why they are here, how they are recruited and who is financing their operations. During the raid in Phelan, deputies arrested Zhixue Fan, a 62-year-old Chinese citizen; Guoxo Yang, 48, of San Gabriel; and Jia Zhi Shi, 39, a Canadian citizen.

From August 2015 to June 6, sheriff’s deputies arrested dozens of Chinese immigrants during raids in Newberry Springs, where hundreds of pounds of processed marijuana were being packaged and shipped out across the country, mainly to the East Coast. Those arrested came from all over California and the rest of the country — Tennessee, Las Vegas, Porterville, Fresno and New York, among other cities.

Debevec could not say whether the growers are involved in a Chinese crime ring, but he has reached out to federal authorities. He would not elaborate.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’’s Marijuana Enforcement Team served search warrants at several residences in Phelan, Calif. on Thursday, June 21, 2018. (Sarah Alvarado for The Cannifornian/The Sun)

In Northern California -— Sacramento, Placer, Yolo and Yuba counties, specifically — Chinese marijuana cultivation operations at suburban homes have led to five indictments in the past five years and the seizure of more than 100 properties believed to have been purchased by a Chinese crime syndicate, court records show.

One indictment, filed in August 2017 in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, alleges that over a four-month period in 2016 one of 10 defendants received three wire transfers totaling $146,955 from China Construction Bank in Fujian, China. The money was used for down payments on homes to be used for marijuana cultivation.

They were making large cash down payments on homes, usually 50 percent down, and the rest was financed by hard money lenders,” said Michael Anderson, supervising assistant U.S. attorney and head of the white collar crime division for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Eastern District in Sacramento. “It’s a fairly interesting and direct link back to China. An unusual method of financing.”

Federal prosecutors allege that at least $6.3 million has been wired from Chinese banks to the U.S. in the past five years to purchase properties for commercial marijuana cultivation. Each wire transfer was for less than $50,000, the threshold at which financial institutions would have to report the transactions.

Human trafficking at play

Anderson said some of the Chinese nationals identified in the Northern California cases may have been working the marijuana grows to pay off a debt for their safe passage to the U.S.

“Indoor marijuana grows associated with criminal organizations raise significant concerns about human trafficking,” Anderson said. “Investigators pay particular attention to the individuals found at the grows, some of whom may be working to pay off debts to the criminal groups.”

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’’s Marijuana Enforcement Team served search warrants at several residences in Phelan, Calif. on Thursday, June 21, 2018. (Sarah Alvarado for The Cannifornian/The Sun)

The elusive culprits in all this are the “dragonheads” — those who fund and organize the marijuana growing operations, said Thomas Yu, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective who investigated Asian gangs for years. He said federal prosecutors have only scratched the surface, and to really make a dent they need to take down the ringleaders, or “dragonheads.”

“Those cases, for lack of a better word, they’re being prosecuted in a vacuum. They’re not prosecuting the guys who are the dragonheads at the top of the food chain,” Yu said.

He said the Chinese crime syndicates recruit skilled farmers from Fujian, China, to cultivate marijuana in the U.S., as well as electricians to bypass electricity needed to power the hydroponic equipment used for indoor cultivation. “They steal (electricity) from the power poles,” Yu said.

Unlike hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, penalties for marijuana cultivation and distribution are particularly lenient in the U.S., especially in states like California, Washington and Colorado, where the drug is now legal for both medical and recreational use. Most offenders get off with probation and fines, which may be why Chinese crime syndicates are exploiting opportunities to cash in on the expanding and lucrative marijuana industry in the U.S., Yu said.

Debevec said another trend has emerged among marijuana growers in recent years that could explain the proliferation of pot farms in the High Desert: an exodus of growers from the San Bernardino Mountains, once a hot spot for large-scale marijuana cultivation.

“Our National Forest grows were huge. We’d get thousands of plants in a forest grow,” Debevec said. “That’s a federal crime and a 10-year mandatory minimum. They realize they can come down here into the valley and do it in smaller plots and face less charges if they get caught. It definitely wouldn’t be a federal charge, and, in a lot of cases it would be a misdemeanor.”

And so the marijuana growers continue flocking to the High Desert to harvest their crops, which has some, like Newberry Springs postal worker and resident Jessica Garcia, somewhat perturbed. She’s tired of the stink marijuana brings to her community, literally.

“I wish they’d go away,” she said.