At the epicenter of a seven billion dollar marijuana industry, international gangs have infiltrated the area, taking advantage of the rugged terrain and lax attitudes towards drugs.
But these criminal operations are bringing more problems, like human trafficking and the kidnapping and torture of a runaway teenage girl.
In the high western corner of northern California, Humboldt County Sheriff’s deputy Greg O’Rourke patrols the cloud-covered valleys.
He’s lived here his whole life, but even he doesn’t feel safe in some parts of this territory.
Dep. O’Rourke said, “We have Russian mafia up here, we have Mexican mafia up here and we have Asian triad gangs up here because the marijuana industry is money.”
For decades, the Emerald Triangle–a picturesque three-county area, filled with redwoods, wildlife and jaw-dropping coastlines–has been one of the most lucrative centers for cannabis cultivation – anywhere in the world.
Arcview, a cannabis market research group, said Californians spent $1.8 billion on legal marijuana.
But that represents just about a quarter of the total. Three quarters of the sales are illegal, and according to Deputy O’Rourke, that’s meant an influx of other criminal activities in the area–including human trafficking.
Deputy O’Rourke said, “A lot of the trafficking that occurs in the marijuana camps are the young women who get picked up and brought up to these rural camps and they are being forced into different sex act–and it’s now coming to our attention as law enforcement. But it’s been occurring for a while.”
In 2013, authorities say two men–Ryan Balletto and Patrick Pearmain, marijuana growers–allegedly forced a 15-year-old girl living on the streets of Hollywood to work on their farm.
Authorities say they sexually assaulted her, tortured her and kept her in a large metal toolbox for several days next to a trailer on the property.
Shoshana Walter is an investigative journalist with Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco. She said, “When investigators went there and got her, they actually found a poem she’d written inside about her life inside the box.”
Walter has looked extensively at the intersection of human trafficking and the marijuana industry in northern California.
She said, “Other employees witnessed the girl getting abused and they later told investigators they saw the growers stinging her with a cattle prod, they saw her getting chained up.”
Due to the secluded nature of these pot-farms, and the presence of armed guards on the property, Deputy O’Rourke says it’s too dangerous for marked squad cars to even patrol some parts of the county.
But CNN ventured up the muddy roads that lead to several of these cannabis farms.
Sporadic locked gates, giving only the slightest glimpses of what’s occurring in these hills.
Aerial footage high above, however, provides another view.
Alicia Hashem worked on a pot-farm several years ago as a trimmer.
She said she could feel the danger the minute she set foot on one of the farms. “This area’s like the Wild West, women just have to be cautious and realize that like the men are kind of like little bit and that they might be in that animalistic state, especially if they’ve been out on the hill for a long time.”
But for Hashem and her friends–who believe in the healing properties of marijuana–there’s a worry that staying silent will reflect poorly on the cannabis industry as a whole.
And while many may want to help, coming forward puts their own livelihoods and freedom at risk.
It’s something Deputy O’Rourke realizes presents a paradox for police.
“The victims are afraid, they are engaging in an illegal activity and they don’t want to bring attention to them being victimized because of their own activity.” Deputy O’Rourke said. “It’s, you know, one of those things where we need to look at the severity and prioritize. Yes, we have marijuana here, we have illegal grows here; we have tools in place to be able to combat there but we’re behind on the trafficking that happens up there and we’re trying to catch up.”
In the meantime, O’Rourke and other law enforcement in the Emerald Triangle will continue to wonder what secrets still lie hidden under the canopy of these ancient forests.
The two marijuana growers, Ryan Balletto and Patrick Pearmain, have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute illegally grown marijuana plants and the use of a minor in drug operations. They’re expected to appear federal court soon.
CNN reached out to their court-appointed lawyer for comment, but she did not return calls.
Attorneys for California say it’s possible they may also try both men on California State human trafficking charges.