The preparation for infiltrating a cartel grow is well thought out and strategically planned
(Photo by John Nores)

No Shit There I Was: John Nores, Infiltrating A Cartel Grow

Mexican Cartels waging war in the California forests, what? They sure are, and there is a very thin “green” line of game wardens of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife fighting back. So what does it feel like to be on the frontline infiltrating a cartel grow? Let’s talk to California native and retired Lieutenant John Nores. John, a law enforcement sniper by trade, ran the Special Operations Marijuana Enforcement Team for the latter part of his career. 

Mexican drug cartels are waging war on marijuana grows in Northern California.
(Photo by John Nores)

Infiltrating A Cartel Grow

John and his team infiltrated these deadly cartel grows for a living. Out there in the wildlands with limited backup, the wardens knew they might run into armed narcos and be exposed to deadly poisons, but they took on the fight willingly. John knew exactly what it was like to be in a shootout on United States soil with the Mexican Cartel.

How did game wardens get involved with cartel grows?

After the cartels moved in and set up shop, they used deadly poisons and toxins to fertilize their crops. As a result, the cartels were utterly destroying the land. We [game wardens] got into the fight because we realized this was a problem, not only for being one of the most massively environmentally destructive crimes anybody could commit against our wildlife resources, but we realized how dangerous they were for the land and the public. 

Hitting these grows must be extremely dangerous; how did you pick your kit? 

Our kit in special operations gave us a lot of latitudes. So we had a green light to pick the gear we needed. 

For firearms, we went with the POF AR-10 Revolution 7.62, a piston-driven rifle. The 7.62 round worked great for us. The 7.62 could defeat brush and put down pigs, bears, and lions if needed. We also used Aim Point T1 optics that were night vision capable of going with our Night Vision Goggles.

We were a Glock agency, so we went with the .40 caliber Glock 22 pistol; the agency has since moved to Glock Generation 5 9mm. 

Because we knew the cartels had firepower, we used First Spear plate carriers. The First SpearLevel Four plates were lightweight. So we can have the armor we need, but also quick detach to get that kid off you in seconds. So if somebody took a gunshot to the chest or a round got between plates, you can peel those things off instantly without pulling them over our heads. 

How do you plan out infiltrating a deadly cartel grow?

On the day of the mission, we would meet in a discrete location for a mission briefing. Whoever was the lead officer for the mission would plan the operation. They would gather intelligence and brief their operations plan. The plan included how we would gain entry, what to do if things went wrong, who the quick reaction force would be, and any medical contingencies we may run into. So we also planned for emergency extraction using helicopters from the National Guard or Police. 

We learned in the early days when we were understaffed that these missions must be handled like an overseas War on Terror mission. You have to have a secondary force. You never know what you’ll get into, and more than a couple of gunmen are usually protecting these grow sites.

We also had to plan for traps. We’re talking about pungy pits; we’re talking about wire snares, trip wires; we’ve seen all that crazy stuff in California forests, anti-personnel devices there to harm anybody coming into the grow, whether it hiker or us.

The ultimate objective is to get in, reclaim the land, make any arrests, destroy or pack out the marijuana, and do all this without firing a shot. 

John is retired but still shines a light on the cartels through his writing and media appearances.
(Photo by John Nores and iStock Photo)

What was it like to infiltrate a hostile grow?

There’s always that Spidey-sense and this, kind of, holding your breath when you get close to the target location. You might see a processing station, and you might see signs of water diversions. But what gets spooky is when you start to get into the interior of a grow site, and suddenly you run into a suspect. 

It is not easy to sneak up on a suspect as you would think. They know their environment; they know how the birds chirp; they can hear twigs break; they know all the sounds because they have lived there for months. They know the sounds and constantly scan and watch the location; they are on frequent patrols and alert. 

The suspects, nine out of ten times, are armed. So you would see a gun on their shoulder, an assault rifle at port arms, or a pistol on their hip. 

Once you see an armed suspect, you must ask yourself; How will this go?

How will we set up on this suspect knowing that at any second, if he pulls that gun, we’ll have to decide if we will use deadly force? 

And sometimes we don’t have that opportunity. For example, we would walk down a trail after we’ve cleared an area; a grower pops up out of nowhere with a gun. That turns into one of the scariest moments, dealing with an armed suspect approaching us from nowhere. As a sniper, I would have had the advantage of surprise, but now we couldn’t avoid being face-to-face with an armed suspect at seven yards; now it’s gunplay. Now it’s a gunfight. And that happened to me on one of my last missions running the team before retirement.

Where is John now?

John is retired but still shines a light on the cartels through his writing and media appearances; you may have seen him chatting with Joe Rogan on his podcast or across a spectrum of other podcasts. John’s book Hidden War, 2nd Edition is out now with a foreword by New York Times bestselling author of The Terminal List, Jack Carr. John’s book illustrates how and why cartel, wildlife, and waterway resource threats have increased significantly throughout the last three years of global pandemic lockdowns and an open border policy.

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