How a marijuana network tied to China became a player on the Colorado black market

Article CAIRCO note: 
From article: new player in black market marijuana in Colorado is a loosely affiliated, extremely insulated network of traffickers with ties to China.
Article author: 
Ryan Osborne
Article publisher: 
7 News
Article date: 
20 December 2019
Article category: 
Colorado News
Article Body: 

[...] Marijuana grow houses are nothing new in Colorado. What made the Larimer County bust unique were the suspects behind the operation. While Mexican cartels hold the most well-known stake in the American drug market, a relatively new player in black market marijuana in Colorado is a loosely affiliated, extremely insulated network of traffickers with ties to China.

The Chinese groups have gained a footing across the state – from the Western Slope to the Larimer County suburbs to the Denver metro. Their rise in recent years has rivaled Cuban traffickers from South Florida, who have long specialized in marijuana grow houses, said Wendi Roewer, the field intelligence manager for the Drug Enforcement Agency's Denver office.

Roewer estimated that the Chinese groups have established thousands of marijuana grow houses in Colorado ...

The structure of the organizations remains fuzzy, but investigators know the groups in Colorado are tied to cell leaders in Northern California and New York, Roewer said. Most of the higher-level leaders are based in the United States, according to Roewer, though they’ve found a flow of money between the groups in the U.S. and China.

And many are staffed by Chinese immigrants, who speak little or no English, know each other through family or friends in their home country and claim they believed they were brought to the United States to work on a legal business.

"They're bringing in people like worker bees, that don't know a lot about the rest of the hierarchy, that are from out of state and out of country," Shellhammer said ...

The marijuana grow operations aren’t just located in the cities along the Front Range.

In September 2016, investigators received a tip about a large outdoor grow farm near Rifle, in Garfield County. At the farm, they found workers harvesting marijuana plants and loading them onto a large truck that was bound for a warehouse in Grand Junction.

When Sheriff Lou Vallario’s deputies arrived at the farm, about a dozen workers ran away, trying to elude the authorities. They were eventually taken into custody, but they spoke little English – if any at all – and even when investigators interviewed them with translators, it was hard to communicate. They spoke dialects specific to their home regions of China.

Vallario said he viewed the workers as more victims than criminals.

“What I see more of is almost like an indentured servant-type relationship,” Vallario said. “We don't believe most of those people were aware, whether they were working in a marijuana. It was an opportunity for them to find a better way of life in our country, and they were misled ...

Related article:

Denver Post, September 28, 2016
Suspects tried to destroy evidence at massive illegal Garfield County pot grow, warrant says
14 Chinese nationals, many of whom are suspected of being in the country illegally, were arrested

CAIRCO Research

Migrants Are Frequently Caught in Colorado Black Market Marijuana Operations, Raising Concerns About Exploitation, Rocky Mountain PBS News, December 21, 2018