SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - Law enforcement is calling it an invasion of Mexican cartels - Illegal pot farms guarded by armed men in Utah's public lands; in your backyard.
Some are worth as much as $50 million on the street.
“Last year alone, 61 national forests were affected by outdoor marijuana grows,” said Frank Smith with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
They’re spread all throughout Utah, and there have been grows discovered as far north as Davis county and as far south as Washington county.
“We didn't see a trend in Utah until about 3 years ago,” said Smith.
In the mountains, you can see the plants mixed in with native growth, hidden from law enforcement and manned by armed guards.
“Can you tell me who these people are?” asked ABC 4’s Brent Hunsaker. “We believe most of these people. we don't believe we know the majority of the people come from Michowacan. It's La Famila driven,” answered Smith.
These are armed Mexican cartel members guarding farms right where you could stumble into a grow while out hiking or camping.
“The days that our children cant go on our public lands and frolic around in a stream is the day that we need to fight back,” said Smith.
At risk are children, families, and hikers like Mikel Trapp who are enjoying the outdoors for a weekend and not realizing the danger that could be just off the trail.
“I’m trying to go out and enjoy nature and clear your mind and have a great day and you shouldn't have to worry about people who are doing that kind of stuff,” said Trapp.
He wants to be safe.
“Its bad news,” said Trapp, who wants law enforcement to get these farms out of Utah.
“Hopefully we can come up with a solution to eradicate it,” said Trapp.
That's the DEA’s plan.
“If we break they're back financially they're not going to come back and we realize that,” said Smith.
Smith wouldn't share all the techniques they use to fight the cartels, but he did tell ABC 4 News they use ground and air surveillance.
“They are extremely sophisticated and as our tactics have gotten better, so have the traffickers,” said Smith.
ABC 4 News was able to tag along with DEA agents as they used some of their aerial searches.
Right now is the time when workers are prepping the land for growing season. But these tactics seem to be working.
According to the DEA, in the last two years the number of marijuana grows has dropped in Utah. In 2010, there were over 100 thousand plants were seized in 16 farms with 13 arrests but in 2011 78 thousand plants were seized in 11 farms and 33 arrests.
“If we can push them back to Nevada then we will help Nevada push them back to California and then we will help California push them back to Mexico. That's the strategy,” said Smith.
But until they're gone, Utahns beware.
On Tuesday, watch ABC 4 News for more information about the environmental impact these marijuana farms have on Utah’s public lands and what you should do if you stumble across a marijuana grow.