Marijuana farm suspects arraigned in federal court

A federal magistrate set an Oct. 11 trial date for 21 defendants who police say were involved in a large marijuana growing operation near St. George.
All but one of the suspects arraigned Monday in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City are Mexican nationals, said Paul Kohler, an assistant U.S. attorney.
State and federal police arrested the suspects July 16 in a raid on the operation. More than 13,000 plants were removed from the site and destroyed, authorities said.
The 21 defendants were indicted last week on three counts each: conspiracy to manufacture a controlled substance by cultivation, manufacture of a controlled substance by cultivation and possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime.
The first two charges each carry a possible life sentence, with a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years.
Kohler said nine additional defendants have been charged in a federal complaint in St. George. He said a handful more of those arrested July 16 are juveniles and will be dealt with by state officials.
Twenty of the 21 arraigned Monday before federal magistrate Brooke C. Wells have immigration holds on them, meaning even if they could post bail they would have to automatically surrender to immigration custody.
The 21st defendant is a legal permanent resident and has a detention hearing set for Wednesday.
All of the suspects are believed to be connected to a drug-trafficking ring operating in Southern California and Nevada, according to authorities.
Robert Breeze, who represents one of the defendants, wouldn't comment on the specifics of the case but said the majority of those arrested in past large-scale growing operations have been "poverty-stricken" peasants hired by others to maintain or harvest the plants.
Sue Thomas, a supervisory special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Salt Lake City, said the suspects are hired and paid by Mexican drug trafficking organizations and thus are "part of them." But she said there are different levels of involvement and hierarchy within the organizations.
Thomas said authorities seized and eradicated 106,000 marijuana plants in southern Utah last year, and already this year have eradicated two farms with about 29,000 plants.
She said southern Utah, mostly its public lands, is plagued with Mexican nationals setting up outdoor marijuana growing operations.
"Obviously it has wonderful water sources and plenty of backcountry, well off the beaten path, that they can take advantage of," Thomas said.
She said all of the large-scale operations federal authorities have seen in southern Utah the past two years have been controlled by Mexican drug trafficking organizations.
She said Utah's weather usually allows traffickers to harvest two crops of marijuana, at a profit margin of $1,000 to $2,000 per plant.
Authorities said they raided another large-scale operation Thursday in Iron County where they collected and destroyed 15,000 plants.
The investigation is continuing on both raids, and more charges could be forthcoming, authorities said.