Hemp empire is accused of growing illegal pot - Albuquerque Journal

Hemp empire is accused of growing illegal pot

Hemp plants and greenhouses surround Dineh Benally’s family home. (Jon J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico)

SHIPROCK – In the fertile northeastern corner of the Navajo Nation, fields that only months ago were traditional open-air corn farms are now stuffed with hundreds of industrial-sized greenhouses, each glowing with artificial lights and brimming with emerald cannabis plants. Security cameras ring the perimeters, and hired guards in flak jackets patrol the public roads alongside the farms.

Every weekday throughout the summer, a group of local kids arrived at the farm by 7:30 a.m., ready for a 10-hour shift of hard labor under the high-desert sun. Many were teenagers, 13- and 14-year-olds lured by offers of quick cash. A few were as young as 10.

Joining them were scores of foreign workers – an estimated 1,000 people, many of them Chinese immigrants brought to New Mexico from Los Angeles, according to Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco.

Alex, who declined to give his last name, rides on a farm road while carrying an AR-15 rifle.

Seven-foot-tall black fencing shields activities inside these greenhouses, but farmworkers, neighbors and law enforcement officers have provided an inside view. Chinese managers oversee the day-to-day logistics, they say, bringing in diesel generators to power the greenhouses, installing dozens of cheaply built trailers to house immigrant workers and drilling wells to irrigate thousands of thirsty cannabis plants.

“Some of the Chinese carry guns,” said Darren Gipson, 19, one of seven farmworkers interviewed by Searchlight New Mexico. “One time, a couple of them got into a knife fight. We just basically do what they tell us and keep to ourselves.”

The cannabis crews arrived in Shiprock last year at the invitation of the local farm board president, a charismatic and divisive political figure named Dineh Benally. Together, they leased plot after plot of traditional farmland for what they said was an economic development project. The land now totals more than 400 acres, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The crops, according to Benally, are merely hemp plants – a type of cannabis grown for its fiber and processed into over-the-counter health products. Hemp looks and smells identical to regular marijuana but contains only trace amounts of psychoactive THC.

But according to the seven employees interviewed by Searchlight, the farms are not only growing hemp: They’re also producing high-powered, black-market marijuana.

Irving Lin, a Los Angeles-based real estate agent who is one of Benally’s primary business associates, acknowledged that this was true.

“A few places” are growing marijuana, Lin told Searchlight, adding that most of the crops are hemp.

In little more than a year, Benally and his associates have built an audacious empire of farms in one of the most remote landscapes in the state – a place where law enforcement can find it a struggle to fight routine crimes, let alone investigate what appears to be a sophisticated international cannabis network.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration told Searchlight that Chinese-run marijuana operations are popping up in rural and urban areas around the West.

Signs supporting hemp farming along hemp fields at Dineh Benally’s family home.

In August 2018, agents from the DEA, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement raided a large black-market marijuana growing operation in Cortez, Colorado, 40 miles north of Shiprock. The raid was part of a federal investigation into a California-linked Chinese drug trafficking network in Colorado. It culminated in May 2019 with the seizure of more than 80,000 marijuana plants.

“There are literally thousands of Chinese-operated (illegal marijuana) grow sites throughout Colorado,” said Wendi Roewer, field intelligence manager for the DEA’s Denver field division. Many of them masquerade as hemp farms, she said. “Would they move beyond the borders of Colorado if they felt safe doing so? Yeah, it seems possible.”

Tensions in Shiprock

So alarming are the operations in Shiprock that the FBI, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Department of Homeland Security, Navajo Nation Police and the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office have joined forces to investigate, emails obtained by Searchlight reveal.

Shiprock is a unique, water-rich oasis in the Navajo Nation along the San Juan River. Its family-run farms have long been a breadbasket, providing corn, as well as melon and squash crops, to communities across the reservation.

Many residents see the cannabis farms as a threat to that tradition.

On at least a dozen occasions, angry protesters have marched to the gates of the farms, sometimes blocking roads, shouting at the workers and carrying placards reading “Stop the Asian Invasion, No Human Trafficking” and “This is Navajo Land, Not China.” Greenhouses have been set on fire. Benally was charged with aggravated assault after allegedly attempting to ram his car into a group of protesters, Francisco said. (Benally and his attorney, David Jordan, declined to answer numerous requests for comment; as of press time, it was not known whether Benally had entered a plea to the charge.)

Some neighbors say they have begun carrying weapons, vowing to shoot any cannabis farm worker who steps onto their property.

“This is our home, and we’re going to fight to defend our way of life even if that means we have to shoot someone,” said Joe Ben, a corn farmer and outspoken opponent of the cannabis farms who now harvests his crops with a loaded shotgun and a Glock 9mm at the ready. “It’s a miracle nobody has gotten killed over this yet already.”

‘Dangerous jobs’

Most mornings this summer, the Navajo kids said, they spent an hour or so cleaning up trash from the raucous parties that were an almost nightly occurrence on the farms, then awaited orders from their shift bosses.

The work was grueling – employees hauled 60-pound bags of soil throughout the labyrinthine networks of greenhouses, handled dangerous chemicals and operated heavy machinery. The hourly cash pay was $5. At least two kids on the work crews were 10 years old, employees said.

On good days, their supervisors assigned them to the “dark room,” where they trimmed buds with the sharp blades of a whirring, mechanized metal fan, getting piles ready to load onto the moving trucks that arrived weekly.

“There’s Blue Cookie, Northern Lights, Skywalker OG, Blueberry Kush, Sour Diesel, Jet Fuel,” said Amber Brown, 20, ticking off the marijuana strains she and other workers said were written on plastic labels in the pots.

Ever since the large greenhouse operations began appearing on the reservation in 2019, Benally has described the farms as legal hemp enterprises. As farm board president, he also claims he has the authority to license hemp farms.

Hemp cultivation is against the law without approval from the federal government, and Benally does not have that approval, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He also lacks the authority to grant hemp licenses or to independently lease farmland on the reservation, according to a lawsuit filed against him in June by Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen McPaul. The suit charged Benally and his businesses with illegally growing industrial hemp and unlawfully issuing land use permits for his industrial hemp project.

On Sept. 18, a Navajo court issued a temporary restraining order requiring Benally to halt all operations on his farms.

“We’ve lost minimum $20 million” because of the restraining order, Irving Lin said, contending that he and his partners had built almost 1,000 greenhouses at $10,000 apiece and invested $10 million in farm infrastructure.

He couldn’t understand why the people on the reservation didn’t appreciate it, he added.

‘Father’ of Native hemp

A marijuana enthusiast who has dubbed himself the Father of Native American Hemp, Benally has frequently advocated for more tribal investment in cannabis. In 2017, he tried to get medical marijuana cultivation legalized in the tribal legislature. He ran for tribal president in 2018 and in the 2020 Democratic primary for U.S. Congress; he lost both times.

In 2019, Benally partnered with a Las Vegas-based financier named DaMu Lin, CEO of One World Ventures Inc., a publicly traded company that says it invests in cannabis projects on Native American land. DaMu Lin (no relation to Irving) appointed Benally to the One World Ventures board of directors in March 2019, according to a company release. The Shiprock operation also obtained funding from SPI Energy Co., a publicly traded company based in China.

“This is about sovereignty,” Benally told Searchlight in an interview in August. “The tribe has been failing us. These farms belong to the people, and so the people control what they want to grow,” he said, explaining that the crops being grown were hemp.

“Yeah, right,” one worker, Ven Yazzie, said when told about Benally’s explanation. “All I know is, you smoke it, it gets you high.”

Reaching into his backpack, he pulled out three containers of purple and lime-green buds that he said were given to him by a farm supervisor – a common incentive offered to the Navajo workers, according to multiple employees.

Although the origin of those samples could not be confirmed, Searchlight took them to a state-certified laboratory for analysis. Each contained between 20% and 27% THC – a higher concentration than the THC content of many marijuana strains sold in recreational dispensaries.

Parking lot payday

On Aug. 6, Dineh Benally parked his white Cadillac Escalade in front of the City Market grocery store in Shiprock, where a reporter watched as he reached his arm out of the dark tinted windows and palmed fist-sized rolls of cash to cannabis farm workers.

The week before, at least 100 community members and activists from the American Indian Movement had converged in protest, shouting through megaphones for Benally to resign from the farm board. Some, claiming the cannabis farms had disrupted their irrigation lines and stolen their water, carried guns.

Others have described seeing Asian farmworkers apparently trying to flee the farms. One resident recounted how a Vietnamese woman appeared at her family home in a remote part of Shiprock – lost, disoriented, begging for water and asking for help to get back to Saigon.

Law enforcement has voiced concerns about possible human trafficking on the cannabis farms. In July, San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari was so suspicious that he requested an investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. An agent from ICE reviewed the immigration status of a group of farm workers and did not investigate further.

Cracks in the law

From the beginning, law enforcement has believed that Benally’s farms were trafficking in illegal marijuana, emails obtained by Searchlight show. But investigators say they have been hampered by a tangle of tribal, state and federal jurisdictional issues, and a confusing legal landscape around cannabis cultivation.

This type of hemp cultivation is not specifically singled out as a criminal offense under tribal statutes, which has kept Navajo police from obtaining a search warrant, according to Francisco. His Navajo Police department has limited jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Natives on the reservation.

“We have some very high suspicions that the large majority of what (Benally) is growing is marijuana,” Francisco said. “He’s probably got millions of plants, and it’s very frustrating because we haven’t been able to prove that it’s not hemp.”

In the days since the tribal court issued its restraining order, workers have been instructed to leave the farms. Navajo police are attempting to enforce the court’s order, even as some farms continue operations, Francisco said.

Neighbors describe seeing the Asian workers sleeping in fields and ditches, shivering through the night and unsure of where to go.

“Mr. Benally brought these workers here under false pretenses,” Francisco said. “They transplanted their lives here thinking they were going to be working on a legitimate project, only to find out that it’s all illegal. They’re really victims, too.”

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