Across central Washington's fruit bowl, farmers are buying vineyards, hoping to establish roots in the area and capitalize on the booming wine industry.
Authorities believe some of the buyers are living in Mexico and their vineyards are producing tens of thousands of illegal marijuana plants – a crop that could easily surpass grapes in value this year.
Law enforcement officials in the Yakima Valley already have converged on seven vineyards that had been converted to marijuana operations this summer. At least five had been recently purchased.
The valley, home to acres of fruit orchards and hop fields, has long been recognized as an important pipeline in the drug trade with easy interstate access to Seattle, Portland and points east.
Crackdowns at the Canadian and Mexican borders have made it more difficult to ship marijuana into the United States, prompting dealers to establish U.S. growing operations.
In 2007, authorities seized 296,611 plants, said Rene Rivera, the Drug Enforcement Agency's agent in charge in Yakima.
“This year, we're probably going to surpass 2007 easily,” Rivera said.
Water use is often a vital clue. Beghtol has noted that grapevines require much less water than marijuana, which needs daily irrigation.
Drug enforcement teams have confiscated about 110,000 marijuana plants valued at more than $100 million this spring and summer in the Yakima Valley alone, and they haven't even begun their annual aerial surveillance.