Law enforcement officials can be seen loading confiscated Thomas Mountain marijuana plants into a truck. Photo by Gary Kuscher

A joint Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD), U.S. Forest Service and federal Drug Enforcement Agency marijuana eradication operation netted 10,017 mature plants on Thomas Mountain, southwest of Garner Valley, according to Captain John Pingel, RCSD. Sgt. Eric Hernandez, who headed the operation for the Sheriff’s Department, estimated last week’s operation netted plants with a street value greater than $21 million.

The majority of the plants, over 8,000, came from the Thomas Mountain bust, said Hernandez. “This is a typical eradication that we conduct at this time of the year,” said Pingel. “They are normally joint operations conducted with other agencies and often across jurisdictional lines.”

Hernandez said RCSD often receives tips from informants, as well as hikers, campers and hunters regarding grow sites. “It’s a big forest and we have a small team so these tips are helpful,” he said. “These kinds of eradications are very labor intensive. Where these guys [growers] go, their major concern is hiding their crop, so they make it as inaccessible as possible. Altitude, manzanita, and terrain all contribute to making access difficult.”

Hernandez noted that staffing cutbacks have affected his division’s ability to operate and that it is necessary to borrow personnel from other RCSD units to help conduct eradications. “Our problem is finding the manpower,” he said. “It’s a perfect storm for making it difficult for us to do our job.”

In answer to a question about Mexican cartel involvement in these local grow efforts, Hernandez said there was likely Mexican involvement but on a smaller scale, not the big cartels that major media portray. “Most of these local sites are run by Mexican drug organizations,” he noted. They’ll smuggle their workers across the border for the season and they’ll live at the sites.” He warned that the sites could be dangerous since the workers are armed.

When reporting suspected marijuana-growing sites, the public can call (951) 955-6384. “GPS coordinates are really helpful when making the report,” said Hernandez.