SAN ANTONIO — Could Texas legalize marijuana or expand medicinal uses? There are 13 bills that have been filed this legislative session related to the controversial plant. As you are about to see a new criminal element has now popped up in the middle of the heartland to make some money, Cuban cartels who are forcing new immigrants to work off their coyote fee by growing pot in the middle of nowhere.
El Paso county, Colorado, some say is the epicenter of what can go wrong with legalization of 420, the street name used for marijuana. With 5 military bases in the county's largest city, Colorado Springs, the sheriff has taken on a war against illegal grow houses, a lot of them being run by Cuban organized crime. Its a beautiful quiet town that sits on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, but there is a war being fought in this county.
"Absolutely we are cracking down. We started out 2018 with about 650 grows, we believe we are below 300 today," said Sheriff Bill Elder of El Paso county, CO.
Sheriff Bill Elder admits his goal of eradicating black market marijuana grow in his county within the next 2 years is ambitious. The sheriff's crackdown has also brought some attention to him and his own security.
"I am not making people happy, that's my job," said Sheriff Elder.
Because his crackdown was seen as a declaration of war on the Cuban illegal growers, that criminal organization threats have been made to the Sheriff's life.
"It's not organized crime like you picture you know the mafia's of years ago, but they are organized," said Sheriff Elder.
What brought them here to El Paso county is the return on their investment says Sheriff Elder. Instead of getting it from Mexico, trafficking it in from the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, they grow it here and ship it out to the east coast getting a return 2 to 3 times on their investment..
"They also understand that crossing a state border vs crossing an international border, as we used to see from trafficking through Sinaloa through the southern states in much less risky to do that. Therefore they lose far fewer loads of marijuana," said Sheriff Elder.
The Cubans' workforce are other Cubans whom the criminal organization has paid to be brought into the country. They're indentured servants who pay off being smuggled into the U.S. by growing illegal weed.
"I can tell you that they typically bring them here they set them up with a place to live, a place to grow. They give them all the product they need, and they explain to them, they teach them how to grow the marijuana and then move them that direction," said Sheriff Elder.
Elder says they hide in plain sight, moving into the community, usually the eastern part of his county. The grows are staged so that every month they're harvesting something. And the Cuban organized crime isn't the only one out there.
"We've seen Laotians predominantly in other communities, the Cubans are pretty territorial. They own the area and most people know," said Sheriff Elder.
And the competition between the different Cuban illegal grow houses can be deadly as rip crews go out to rob each other at harvest time.
"So a rip crew is a group of Cubans put together they will go out and target specific grows nearing harvest time. They'll break in, tie them up, forcibly take their product. Typically they'll take everything they've grown," said Sheriff Elder.
And in some cases those in charge will often rip their own grow house.
"They will go in and they will rob the grower so that the grower believes that they are being robbed by someone not associated and they will take their own product out of there and they say sorry you just lost a load, you owe us another year. And the grower will then be indentured to that organization to grow that product for another year," said Sheriff Elder.
Just up the highway, District Attorney George Brauchler has also seen and prosecuted some of the crime being committed this new criminal organization.
"Most of the violence that we've seen has been visited upon each other. Either in a drug rip or other folks, but it doesn't mean that the risk isn't there for law-enforcement," said Brauchler.
Brauchler says marijuana is treated here like gold.
"Nobody treats this like it's just any other product, they treat it like it's gold and they're willing to trade your life for their own if need be and that leads to increase in violence almost everywhere," said Brauchler.