Lt. Chad Brooks, a deputy with the Pickens County Sheriff’s Department, is used to finding a marijuana plant here or there in the mountainous region of the Upstate county, which includes thousands of acres of state land in the Jocassee Gorges.
But in October 2005, Brooks and another officer found not just cannabis scattered among the mountain laurel but also a sophisticated irrigation system that made use of a natural spring, gravity and plastic tubes to water 1,025 marijuana plants.
Much of the marijuana grown in South Carolina can be found not mixed in with the tomato gardens of users but on large-scale farms often planted under tall pine trees and run by illegal immigrants working for Mexican drug trafficking organizations.
Last year, State Law Enforcement Division agents seized 35,142 plants — more than in the past three years combined and the most since 1992.
In the Pickens case, authorities arrested 22-year-old Jorge Luis Martinez Reyes — an illegal immigrant from Mexico lured to South Carolina on the promise of $200 a day for “roofing work,” according to Pickens County Sheriff’s Department documents.
Reyes told police he worked the fields with 10 other Hispanic men who survived in the wilderness by using propane stoves and about a dozen AA batteries strung together to create a homemade cell phone charger.
Occasionally, Reyes told police, a man would show up, drop supplies and carry off harvested marijuana in black trash bags.
Reyes pleaded guilty in April 2006 and got 10 years in prison, Brooks said. Reyes would not name his bosses.
To find the marijuana fields, law enforcement agencies call on SLED spotters, who use Vietnam War-era helicopters to find the plants distinguished by their blue-green color and spiked leaves.
In July in Chester County, agents spotted nearly 17,000 plants spread over three fields. Jose Maria Morelos Valdez, 22 and an illegal immigrant from Mexico, pleaded guilty and was deported, said Chester County Sheriff Robert Benson.
Special Agent Van Safriet, a SLED pilot, likes to fly about 100 feet off the ground at about 45 mph to scan for marijuana.
“Everybody has their own way of looking,” he said.
The flights begin in the spring, after the start of the growing season, and run until the first frost, in late September or early October.
Reach Beam at (803) 771-8405 Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.