The northeast corner of the Navajo Nation is still dotted with abandoned greenhouses — the remnants of one of the federal government’s largest marijuana busts, now tattered and sun-worn from years in the elements. The trafficking victims who once toiled in the greenhouses — most of them Chinese laborers — are scattered across the country, their lives in shambles after a massive raid shut down the illegal business in 2020.
But as federal investigations near their third year without any charges filed, Dineh Benally, the Navajo cannabis entrepreneur who orchestrated the operation, appears no closer to facing arrest. Instead, he’s expanding his marijuana business in New Mexico — again with the help of Chinese laborers, the Torrance County Sheriff’s Department said.
Ever since receiving two cultivation permits from the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, in October 2022, Benally has been working to convert an old pumpkin farm south of Estancia into a large marijuana grow site with about 100 greenhouses. Roughly 16 RVs are parked behind a locked metal gate at the property, closely resembling the trailers where Chinese workers in Shiprock slept after their shifts.
On Sept. 20, Searchlight New Mexico contacted the Regulation and Licensing Department to ask about its background-checking process. Why would someone associated with federal investigations into illegal cannabis and human trafficking be granted permits to start another operation? The agency was “not aware of the investigations into [Benally’s] business prior to licensure,” an RLD spokesperson replied.
In the following weeks, the RLD sent compliance officers to visit Benally’s new farm. They found eight alleged violations of the state’s cannabis regulations, according to an Oct. 12 notification letter sent to Benally’s company.
Among the listed violations: His farm “far exceeded” its legal plant count; there was “rubbish found throughout the facility” and “evidence of pests on cannabis plants”; he had “not conducted a single quality assurance test”; he hadn’t developed required policies and procedures for employees; and the facility lacked mandatory security measures. If Benally doesn’t correct the violations, he faces potential fines and the loss of his cannabis license.
Benally’s attorney did not respond to Searchlight’s email and phone requests for comment; efforts to reach Benally were also unsuccessful.
Shiprock and Navajo Nation ‘deserve justice’
In the backdrop, the federal investigation into Benally’s black-market operation in Shiprock continues to languish, creating intense frustration for Navajo law enforcement authorities. Because much of the case falls under federal jurisdiction, tribal prosecutors must defer to the U.S. Attorney.
“To date, nobody responsible for the harm caused to the Navajo Nation and to these workers by Benally and his associates’ illegal marijuana operation has been prosecuted,” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch wrote in an emailed statement to Searchlight.
“This must change,” she wrote. “The Navajo Nation and the Shiprock, New Mexico community deserve justice.”
The U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, which has jurisdiction over criminal investigations, declined to comment.
To people whose lives were upended by Benally’s gambit, the outrage is palpable. While Benally and his partners pursued their unlawful empire, the Navajo Nation was being ravaged by COVID-19, Branch noted. “At one of our darkest hours, when Navajo law enforcement was focused day and night on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and our Navajo People faced the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country, Benally and his associates took advantage of the Nation, and tried to personally enrich themselves,” she wrote.
As thousands of non-Native workers poured onto sovereign land to grow cannabis – an illegal crop on the Navajo Nation – neighbors took to the streets in protest, demanding that the tribe shut down the operation. By the time the raid finally occurred, in November 2020, agents discovered nearly a quarter million marijuana plants.
“Why haven’t they been prosecuting that?” asked Bea Redfeather-Bennally, a Navajo farm board official and prominent opponent of the Shiprock marijuana venture. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
Forced labor alleged
A group of formerly trafficked farmworkers are asking similar questions.
On Sept. 27, 2023, 15 Chinese immigrants filed a civil suit in New Mexico state court, alleging that Benally and his associates lured them to Shiprock under false pretenses and engaged in human trafficking and exploitation.
In 2020, the lawsuit asserts, the workers were forced to harvest and process illegal marijuana at Benally’s farms in Shiprock and at a motel in nearby Farmington, where they worked in unventilated rooms with only upside-down buckets for seats. None received a penny, the complaint asserts.
One of the plaintiffs in the case, former California resident Qinliang Wang, talked to Searchlight in 2020, shortly before the motel was raided.
“I lost my job in California because of the pandemic back in March,” Wang explained, speaking in Mandarin. “My ancestors have been farmers for generations. When a friend told me about this work opportunity, I thought it would be perfect. Nobody told me it was illegal. Nobody told any of us workers it was illegal.”
No one mentioned that the job involved marijuana, he added. Instead, he was told he’d be “trimming flowers” in New Mexico for $200 per day.
Shortly after the interview, local law enforcement raided the motel and arrested Wang and 16 other workers, charging them with multiple felonies.
The district attorney later dropped the charges, after the New Mexico Crime Victim Reparation Commission, the state public defender’s office, and The Life Link, a Santa Fe-based service provider, determined the workers were victims of labor trafficking. But the arrests stayed on their record, making it difficult or impossible for them to find employment or get help.
“They are just hard-working innocent people,” said Lynn Sanchez, human trafficking aftercare director at The Life Link.
One of the workers took the job in Shiprock so he could buy medication for his daughter in China, who had a serious heart condition, Sanchez said. After the charges against him were dropped in Farmington, he took another job with one of Benally’s associates in Oklahoma, where he was arrested and sent to an immigration detention facility in Colorado. While locked up, unable to send money home, his daughter died.
The workers are still suffering profoundly, long after their arrests in Farmington, said Aaron Halegua, their attorney in the civil suit. Their mugshots were published in Chinese-language media, causing them to “lose face amongst friends, relatives and the broader community.” Several of them — including Qinliang Wang — have been turned down for jobs. Drug offenses are taken “extremely seriously” in China, he said.
Brazen farms, bogus permits
From the start, Benally’s enterprise stood out both for its scale and its brazenness. Beginning in 2019, when he was president of a local farm board, Benally began issuing bogus cannabis cultivation permits, paving the way for him and his business partners to start growing marijuana.
A 2020 investigation by Searchlight revealed that the farms, operating under the guise of a commercial hemp operation, were staffed by more than 1,000 workers brought to New Mexico from predominantly Chinese neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York. Other workers were Navajo children, some as young as 10, Searchlight found.
In September, a tribal court ordered Benally to immediately cease growing cannabis, but he nonetheless continued. (He is due in Navajo court in December on criminal charges that he violated that court order.)
He could also potentially face criminal charges related to the November 2020 raid, when federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agents descended on the Shiprock farms.
Benally fled the area before the bust and was initially presumed to be in hiding, according to then-Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco. In the meantime, some of his associates and scores of Shiprock workers relocated to Oklahoma, Searchlight found. Law enforcement eventually shut down those farms, as well.
But there was always new territory to explore. In 2021, Benally reemerged in public and tried to set up a marijuana operation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota; the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council promptly barred him from conducting business there.
Next, he returned to the Navajo Nation and tried his hand at politics: In 2022, he entered the primary race for president. (He lost, garnering 10 percent of the vote.)
He maintained a public profile, having breakfast at the Denny’s near Window Rock, attending candidate forums and mingling with the crowds on the day of the Navajo Nation presidential inauguration.
It was a year of big changes for the recreational cannabis market: New Mexico had legalized adult use, and in 2022, the first licensed sales began. By October, Benally received his two state-sanctioned marijuana farming permits at the land in Estancia as well as in Waterflow, just east of the Navajo Nation.
State cannabis regulations prevent the licensing of anyone who has been convicted of certain felony crimes, including drug offenses or hiring underage labor for an illegal drug operation, according to RLD spokeswoman Andrea Brown. But the agency cannot deny a grow license if an applicant has not been convicted, Brown said.
Benally associates arrested
Benally has not been convicted, but some of his associates have been brought in. Law enforcement in California and Oklahoma targeted at least two of his former business partners. Most notable among them was Irving Lin, who helped supply labor, investors and logistics to the Shiprock farms. Lin was arrested in February 2022 after a series of raids on illegal marijuana farms in California.
That same year, federal and local law enforcement raided nine large-scale illegal marijuana operations in Oklahoma, including one whose laborers had formerly worked in Shiprock.
The owner of Big Buddha Farms — the largest farm targeted in those busts — was a former Benally associate named Bryan Peng. He was arrested and charged with drug trafficking and other felonies, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics spokesman Mark Woodward said.
And this month, Oklahoma officials raided the Harvesting Valley farm near the Texas border for allegedly supplying marijuana to the black market, an operation tied to Big Buddha Farms, according to Woodward.
Across the fertile farmland around Shiprock, Benally’s now-defunct cannabis grows still mark the landscape. The scattered greenhouses and concrete foundations sunk into the earth prevent the land from returning to its prior purpose of growing corn — a crop sacred to the Navajo.
The cannabis infrastructure is being preserved as evidence, said Redfeather-Bennally, currently the vice president of the local farm board. And because federal cases take precedence, Navajo law enforcement largely must wait for the U.S. attorney’s office to resolve its case before the Navajo Nation can act.
The Navajo Police Department and Attorney General’s Office spent “a lot of resources” to crack the Benally case, said former Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco, who led the department until 2021. Navajo investigators discovered a slew of violations on the marijuana farms, including “EPA violations, stealing of water,” and labor law violations, he said.
“It is frustrating that we did all that and there hasn’t really been any resolution to it as far as charges…and then [Benally] continues on trying to find other places to do the same kind of issues,” said Francisco, now the police chief in neighboring Bloomfield.
While tribal officials wait for the case to proceed, Redfeather-Bennally is pressing the federal government to cancel the land-use permits still held by Navajo farmers who leased their acreage to the marijuana operators years ago.
“Everything’s at a standstill,” she said.
Some steps are being taken outside the Navajo Nation, however.
The state Attorney General’s office said it is “deeply concerned” about work conditions in the cannabis industry and the possibility of human trafficking “supported by international criminal organizations,” a spokeswoman said in an email.
In August, special agents from the Attorney General’s office raided a cannabis farm less than nine miles from Benally’s farm in Estancia, an operation that was not linked to Benally. But the property, much like Benally’s old Shiprock empire, is staffed by Chinese workers, with signs in Chinese clearly visible on the front gate.