Local law enforcement report seven people were shot dead at an illegal cannabis growing operation in Aguanga, a rural Southern Californian town.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said the large-scale grow site and the killings bear the hallmarks of an organized criminal syndicate.
“This was not a small operation,” Bianco said. “This is a very organized-crime type of an operation.”
Bianco described the deaths as an “isolated incident” that posed no risk to Aguanga residents.
The seven victims were from Laos. Six of them were dead on-site when police officers first arrived, with one woman succumbing to her wounds later at a hospital.
Law enforcement was first notified of the Aguanga shooting through a 911 call. Attending officers made no arrests nor could they identify any suspects. They did, however, seize more than 1,000 pounds of cannabis flower and a further few hundred marijuana plants.
Aside from growing cannabis, the property in the town of Aguanga – 120 kilometers north of San Diego – was used to process the plant into a honey oil concentrate. Law enforcement officers found several rickety dwellings, as well as a nursery and vehicles registered to several different states. At a press conference, Bianco said his office had therefore asked federal authorities to help apprehend the vehicle owners.
The site was home to around 15 other workers of Laotian descent. Over the last ten years or so, workers from the small land-locked country have accounted for an increasingly high proportion of California’s labor in illegal grows.
While such operations are not uncommon in Aguanga – a town of around 2,000 people – nor in its surrounding area, the mass killing has shocked residents and shone a light on the ongoing violence in California’s illegal cannabis market. In Riverside County alone, law enforcement have responded to eight cannabis-related homicide calls this year, with 14 people killed in total.
California legalized adult-use marijuana in 2018, but illicit grows still hold a large share of the market. So much so that Gov. Gavin Newsom deployed the National Guard to break up illegal marijuana farms. Partly as a result, California authorities reported seizing more than $1.5 billion of cannabis across 345 illicit grow sites in 2019. As these figures make clear, there’s still a lot of money to be made in illicit cannabis in California in spite of legalization. That’s because illicit operations have been embedded in California’s marijuana economy and culture for decades, they aren’t liable to the state’s steep cannabis taxes and some jurisdictions have banned adult-use sales. Perhaps not for long though as a bill is currently working its way through the state legislature to override these local cannabis retail bans.
Image source: AP