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Illegal marijuana farms could create dangerous confrontations

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - Law enforcement telling us Mexican cartels are invading Utah by setting up illegal marijuana grows in our forests. And it’s creating a dangerous situation for you and your family. What can you do if you find yourself in the middle of one of these Utah cash crops?
SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - Law enforcement telling us Mexican cartels are invading Utah by setting up illegal marijuana grows in our forests.

And it's creating a dangerous situation for you and your family.

What can you do if you find yourself in the middle of one of these Utah cash crops?

ABC 4 News took a short drive and a short walk into Utah's public lands in Southern Utah.

"He hid his vehicle under that tree over there," said Heath Berchinal who discovered a marijuana farm.

He showed ABC 4 where he came face to face with a dangerous situation.

"We were quite worried," said Berchinal.

And he's not the only one. There's a lot of traffic in our back country.

"We do not want anyone taking these traffickers on," said Frank Smith with the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Smith tells ABC 4 that people like you and me are in real danger of discovering a marijuana grow.

In exclusive video obtained by ABC 4 we saw the plants mixed in with native growth. It's hidden from law enforcement and manned by armed guards.

In the video you can also see a man walking through a grow with a rifle on his back. He's checking the marijuana plants, which Smith say's belong to the Mexican cartels.

Smith warns that there's a real chance to run into cartel members in Utah's public lands.

That's what happened to Berchinal.
"If you're a hunter do not confront these people. They are armed and they are dangerous." - Frank Smith, DEA
"They were parked out here about 300 or 400 yards out in the trees," said Berchinal. "Kind of like it's hidden away?" asked ABC 4's Brent Hunsaker. "Right," answered Berchinal.

He showed ABC 4 exactly were where. We walked up a trail, which at the time was covered in feet of snow and mud, when he saw two men that looked out of place. They were wearing only tennis shoes and tee shirts.

"Right when they saw us the other guy just took off through the trees," said Berchinal.

The other sat in place and didn't leave.

Birchinal was turkey hunting and carrying a shotgun. So, since he'd heard of marijuana grows in the area he put his gun away not to cause a confrontation.

"If you're a hunter do not confront these people. They are armed and they are dangerous. Just because you have a rifle and you're a hunter doesn't mean you should take these people on," warned Smith.

For a moment Berchinal and the man talked, kind of, The man didn't speak any English and Berchinal didn't speak Spanish. Luckily there was no confrontation.

"If you walk in there you're a threat and they will do what they have to do to protect it," said Smith.

But how would you know if your accidentally walking into a dangerous area?

There are signs you should look for:
  • One of the biggest is sprinkler pipes. There are black sprinkler lines or PVC pipes running from rivers or wells.
  • The farm workers clear land and stack dead brush around the farm. This causes a fire hazard but it's also a sign
  • Watch out if you see empty or full bags of fertilizer and herbicides.
There's big money in those plants so workers tend to them and protect them.

"I am extremely nervous that a family would stumble into one of these grows and if your looking at something that's worth $50 million and the traffickers think that they could get away with hurting them so no one would discover the grove, we would be naïve to think that they wouldn't," said Smith.

So be aware. And if you get in the same situation as berchinal did? The advice is to stop and don't wander any further into trouble. Be quiet and listen for people talking so you can avoid them. Then go back the same way you came.

"If you have a GPS, on the way out mark it on your GPS and as soon as you get clear from there make sure you call local or state low enforcement or the DEA," said Smith.

That's what Berchinal did.

"I was GPSing the trail as we were coming in and made sure we kept it on the whole time so we could give them those coordinates," said Berchinal.

Those GPS coordinates were critical.

The DEA told ABC 4 that Berchinal's info was instrumental in the take down of the Pine Valley marijuana grow. In that grow 8,183 plants were seized and 6 Mexican nationals were arrested.

"You shouldn't even have to worry about that kind of stuff," said Berchinal.

Be aware for new techniques being used by cartel members. Booby trapping has been seen in grows in other states and the DEA thinks the traffickers will start using that technique here in Utah.

Cash Crop Part 1 - ABC 4 investigates: Utah's secret 'cash crop' marijuana farms
Cast Crop Part 2 - Marijuana farms damaging public lands
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