“In the fertile northeast 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.”
With those words, published September 23 by Searchlight New Mexico, the online investigative news platform, our guest today, reporter Ed Williams lit a law enforcement fuse that finally went off more than six weeks later, on Nov. 9 , when a multi-jurisdictional state, federal and Navajo law enforcement task force began a three-day series of raids on alleged “illegal hemp and/or marijuana” grow-sites.
“Federal agents and law enforcement found thousands of pounds of harvested marijuana,” Arlyssa Becenti of Navajo Times reported, “and hundreds of thousands of live marijuana plants … worth millions on the black market.”
The all-kinds-of-cannabis operation covered more than 30 farms, more than 400 acres of land lined with hoop after hoop, covering large-scale greenhouses. An operation this big was hard to hide, and the Navajo Land Board Chairman behind it was pretty open about it – up to a point. Dineh Benally called himself “Father of Native American Hemp,” and claimed his position on the San Juan County Farm Board empowered him, not only to grow whatever he wanted on his land, including “industrial hemp,” and legalize leases for other Navajo farmers to let his company grow more hemp on their land.
So what was all the seven-foot high, black tarp fencing around Benally’s hoop houses hiding? Evidence gathered in the raids suggested that the non-intoxicating hemp plants were screens for all that marijuana — found on drying racks or neatly packed in plastic bags. And then there were all those Chinese immigrant workers tending and harvesting the plants. There were hundreds of them, tricked, it would seem into working for, and in some cases investing in, a cannabis operation they had been told was completely legal.
They are Dineh Benally’s first and probably worst-hit victims, especially the 16 Chinese immigrants arrested the night before the big farm raids clipping marijuana buds in motel rooms in the near-the-reservation town of Farmington, NM. They had been told those jobs were as legal in New Mexico as they are where they had been living in California. Not true, and now they face federal charges carrying a potential ten years in prison.
Ed Williams has worked as a journalist in the U.S. and Latin America for digital, print and radio media outlets since 2005. He spent seven years in public radio before joining Searchlight New Mexico as an investigative reporter, covering foster care, education, and other issues. His work has won numerous national awards, including the 2019 Frank Blethen Award for Local Accountability Reporting by The American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Media Editors for his Searchlight NM report “A pattern of failure,” on serious abuses within the foster care system in New Mexico. Ed was a 2016 USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellow, and he earned a Master’s in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2010.