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58 held after bust at largest pot farm found in Mexico

Soldiers burn marijuana plants at a plantation discovered near San Quintin, Baja California state, Mexico, on Friday. Officials say it's the largest marijuana plantation ever detected in Mexico.
Soldiers burn marijuana plants at a plantation discovered near San Quintin, Baja California state, Mexico, on Friday. Officials say it's the largest marijuana plantation ever detected in Mexico.Alexandre Meneghini / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Food still sat on the camp dinner table Friday, abandoned three days earlier by workers fleeing soldiers who stumbled on their lush, mesh-covered oasis stretching across the harsh Baja California desert.

Two men were caught in the camp and 56 others were rounded up in the area around what the Mexican government calls the biggest marijuana plantation ever found in the country.

Officials on Friday showed reporters the sophisticated operation, which the army says popped up in less than four months.

Ties to cartel
Army officers said the vast farm just 1½ miles (2.5 kilometers) from the main federal highway in Baja California state appeared to be the work of the Sinaloa cartel. The same gang was tied to Mexico's largest bust of marijuana packaged for sale last fall and sophisticated underground border tunnels discovered in November, both also in Baja California.

No one has been charged in the raid on the huge pot farm late Tuesday. The suspected workers are still being questioned.

Two of the men said they were from Sinaloa state, headquarters of the Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted fugitive. The farm was in remote territory of the Baja peninsula, 280 miles (450 kilometers) south of Tijuana, that is believed to be controlled by Guzman's cartel.

"There are indications that these are zones of the Sinaloa cartel," said infantry Maj. Bernardo Rafael Sanchez, spokesman for the army's second region, which covers the border states of Baja California and Sonora.

Some areas of the more than half-mile-square (kilometer-square) marijuana farm resembled a nursery, with small plants. Other parts were like mature corn fields with neat rows of forest green plants rising more than six feet to a protective mesh shielding the expanse of plants. From the air, it looks like a giant square of asphalt.

Authorities believe as many as 120 men worked the farm, living in four rudimentary, plywood buildings, including a large bunkhouse with long sleeping platforms for up to 60 people, a living room and the kitchen.

Beans, cheese and salsa sat on the dinner table nearly three days after the raid, along with CDs of Norteno music. Women's lingerie and platform heels were found in one of the smaller bedrooms. Army officials said women did not appear to have worked in the fields and may have been there for "entertainment."

The army also found prepaid telephone cards and communications antennas.

Rare find in Baja
Marijuana plantations this large and sophisticated are rare in Mexico, especially in Baja California, army Brig. Gen. Gilberto Landeros said.

Pot cultivation is much more common in the Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Sonora, Durango and Sinaloa states.

Federal authorities said the Baja pot farm was nearly double the size of an operation found in Sinaloa in 2007 and four times the size of the "Bufalo" farm discovered in the border state of Chihuahua in 1984. Estimates of the size of the Bufalo plantation vary widely.

The army said that troops patrol this area of arid bushland and cactus every three to four months and that the plantation was not here just a few months ago. The operators used wells for water, and tiny irrigation hoses fed every plant. There were also discarded boxes of the herbicide Gramoxone.

"At first they thought it must have been a vegetable farm," Landeros said of the soldiers who walked onto the ranch.

Army Gen. Alfonso Duarte said traffickers could have harvested about 120 tons of marijuana from the plantation, worth about 1.8 billion pesos ($160 million).

A week to burn plants
Troops have begun destroying the operation by burning the marijuana plants. Landeros said it would take a week.

Last October, Mexican authorities made their largest-ever seizure of marijuana packaged for sale, a record 148 tons (134 metric tons) found in a number of tractor trailers and houses in Tijuana, which is across the border from San Diego.

In November in the same region, U.S. and Mexican investigators found sophisticated tunnels that ran about 2,000 feet from Mexico into California and were equipped with lighting, ventilation and a rail system for drugs to be carried on a small cart.

While the Arellano Felix or Tijuana cartel long dominated the drug trade in Baja California, the cartel has been greatly weakened by government hits on its leadership, and authorities say there are signs that the Sinaloa cartel now also operates in the area.

Drug violence continued around Mexico on Friday as gunmen at a fake highway checkpoint ambushed a police convoy and killed 12 officers in western Sinaloa state. The officers were traveling from a town where they had helped launch a "Safe Commerce" program aimed at averting attacks on merchants. A tortilla seller was killed in the crossfire.

Earlier, police in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero said they found three bodies with heads and two severed heads without bodies on the highway between the resorts of Acapulco and Zihuatanejo. Another decapitated body was found in Acapulco, along with the man's head and a hand-lettered message of the kind frequently left by drug cartels to threaten rivals.

In the western state of Jalisco, federal police reported they had arrested Martin Arzola, who is allegedly one of the leaders of a new cartel, The New Generation, that sprang up after top-level Sinaloa cartel leader Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel was killed in a battle with soldiers during a raid on his mansion in July 2010.

Arzola was allegedly in charge of drug distribution in the state capital, Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city.

The New Generation is reportedly fighting a group called The Resistance for control of the area. The Resistance was formed by former members of the Milenio, Gulf and La Familia cartels.