TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

Local News

September 23, 2009

Mexican drug cartels suspected in area

Organizations could be growing marijuana locally

By Samantha Swindler / Managing Editor

Officers with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force are arresting people on a near daily basis across Appalachia — but for the first time, they’re finding evidence that Mexican drug organizations are growing marijuana in the area. 

HIDTA officers were flying over Whitley County Monday, searching for marijuana plants across fields in secluded areas. Helicopter HIDTA searches over Appalachia began June 25 and will continue into October. 

“We’re actually flying and searching for it (marijuana) every single day throughout the state of Kentucky,” said David Keller, deputy director at the Appalachian HIDA office. 

One particular focus for HIDTA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office has been a “zero tolerance” policy for growing marijuana on federal lands. Keller said growing a single plant on federal property — usually national forests — becomes a federal offense. 

“As of mid-August this year, there were 64 defendants that had gone through federal court in regards to this initiative by the US Attorney’s Office. Many of these growers have prior convictions; for many of them, additional charges have been added for federal firearm charges,” he said. 

Kellers remembers a time, as recent as the late 1990s, when it wasn’t safe to go into the Daniel Boone National Forest because growers placed traps or had armed workers watching their illegal crops. 

“We are basically taking our forests back from the cultivators,” Keller said. “...We’re seeing less on public land — with the exception of these Mexican trafficking organizations that have recently appeared, like in Knox County this year.” 

Drug cartel-run grows started moving into California four or five years ago, he said, and they are now starting to crop up in Eastern Kentucky. Part of that has to do with increased U.S. border security and the difficulty in moving drugs. Part of it is the Appalachian climate, perfect for growing in what has been dubbed “The Marijuana Belt.” 

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