MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — Irving Lin, a jovial entrepreneur in his late 60s, wanted to share a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a near-miraculous way out of the economic devastation wrought on Southern California’s Chinese communities by the pandemic: the gift of marijuana.

“We are making a fortune in Oklahoma, and you can too,” Lin, speaking in Mandarin, told a crowd of 30 potential investors gathered for a PowerPoint presentation at a Chinese cultural center on Dec. 5. The return on investment is as high as 1,200 percent, Lin explained eagerly. Finance one greenhouse, and you’ll walk away with $300,000. Three greenhouses will make you a millionaire. 

“The demand is huge and growing, and so are the profits,” he assured his audience, almost all of them Chinese immigrants. “All you have to do is hand over the money, and our team will take care of the rest.” 

Only a month earlier, Lin’s previous venture had come to a screeching halt when federal agents raided a string of black-market cannabis greenhouses built across 400 acres of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. That raid, dubbed “Operation Navajo Gold,” was among the largest in the country, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, netting over 60,000 pounds of illegal marijuana. A federal investigation of the farms is also looking into allegations of human trafficking and worker exploitation.

Things were different now, Lin promised.

Irving Lin, an entrepreneur in his late 60s, calls for investors to join him in the burgeoning marijuana business in Oklahoma. Wufei Yu for Searchlight New Mexico

The new farms were operating with state-issued medical cannabis cultivation permits. Oklahoma’s cheap land, lax enforcement and miniscule tax rate ensured that they would be allowed to proceed in peace. Even if the farms were to get shut down in the future, he said, investors could be confident of turning a handsome profit in the short term.

“Oklahoma, it’s like a heaven there,” said Bryan Peng, a Los Angeles-based marijuana farm manager whose grow site in New Mexico was shut down by the federal raid in November.  

“The sky is the limit. We can take it to the next level.”

A Searchlight New Mexico investigation found that in the weeks since law enforcement shuttered the 36 Navajo farms, hundreds of the workers and managers have relocated to Oklahoma, where they plan to build an even more formidable network of grow sites.

To provide the labor, the managers are tapping into a huge pool of immigrant restaurant workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-related closures and business restrictions. Many of the workers are being recruited through Chinese labor brokers or “job agencies,” based primarily out of Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley—part of what prosecutors and human rights attorneys describe as an informal, cash-based economy that enables exploitation and abuse.

“These workers were in an incredibly precarious situation even before COVID,” said Erin Albright, a trafficking expert who formerly worked at the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime.

“A job harvesting marijuana can seem like a golden ticket. It could mean the difference between destitution and economic survival. It could also mean that they end up getting exploited and trafficked. Either way, they don’t have much of a choice.”

The unemployed line up at a job agency in the San Gabriel Valley. Wufei Yu for Searchlight New Mexico

The San Gabriel Valley straddles the northeastern flank of Los Angeles, where a cluster of cities — Monterey Park, Alhambra, San Gabriel and Rosemead — is home to one of the country’s largest Chinese immigrant populations.

Its sprawling, palm-lined streets are the first stop for many Chinese immigrants who have made the arduous and expensive journey to the United States — one frequently arranged by “snakeheads,” a type of Chinese smuggler akin to the Mexican coyote, and financed by unscrupulous lenders who are keen to take immigrants’ family homes or ancestral farmland as collateral.

In this environment, job offers that would give most people pause are an easy sell.

“Things have gotten hard,” explained one laid-off restaurant worker in California who gave his name as Laoshan. “I don’t know if everything the marijuana farms are doing is legal, but I am still considering taking a job on one.” 

An immigrant from Fujian Province, Laoshan said he had saved for years to pay the $20,000 fee to a snakehead. When he arrived in California in 2016, he was given a bed in a weather-stained boarding house in Monterey Park. Through a job agency, Laoshan found a position washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant, earning just enough income to send a stipend to family back home and cover the rent for the two-bedroom apartment he shares with 10 other people.

A job agency in a makeshift church in Monterey Park, Calif. Wufei Yu for Searchlight New Mexico
A bedroom in the Monterey Park, Calif., apartment that Laoshan shares with 10 other people. Wufei Yu for Searchlight New Mexico

“The marijuana sector used to be such a closed industry, and now it is becoming a new business opportunity for the Chinese nationals and others from that community,” said Anh Truong, supervising attorney for Sex and Labor Trafficking in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.

“They have an advantage in that there’s this network already in place of money and workers who will travel to New Mexico or elsewhere and take chances,” he said. “If you step back a little bit, everyone seems to be making money off of this flow of labor. Everyone is taking a piece of the action.”

Vague and alluring offers from Los Angeles-based job agencies blanket WeChat, a social media and messaging platform popular among the Chinese community. “Earn $70 for every pound of flowers you trim, from 4pm to 4am. Lodging and transportation from L.A. provided,” reads one such posting. “$180 a day. We can leave tonight,” reads another.  

An advertisement for one of the seminars on marijuana investment opportunities in Oklahoma, organized by Irving Lin.

Illegal leavings in New Mexico

By any measure, the New Mexico venture was a disaster for Chinese investors and growers alike. The project — employing at least 1,000 laborers at its peak — ended with tens of millions of investment dollars going up in smoke, according to Lin. 

The Taiwan-born Lin is a shrewd businessman who came to the United States as a student back in the late 1970s. After graduating from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, he started an IT company in New York in 1984. Many Chinese-Americans still call him “President Lin,” because he used to lead an industry organization of Chinese computer entrepreneurs on the East Coast.

After making a fortune investing in Southeast Asian mines, he moved to Los Angeles and turned his attention to real estate. In 2017, as California and other states prepared to legalize the use of recreational marijuana, Lin entered the booming, largely uncharted field. The New Mexico operation was one of his rare failures, he told Searchlight.

He also said that the marijuana grown in New Mexico was intended for sale out of state, aimed at a network of distributors who supply a so-called “grey market.” Transporting marijuana across state lines is a federal offense. Lin and his fellow growers have, however, insisted that their project in New Mexico was legitimate, placing the blame for the fiasco at the feet of Dineh Benally. The recently ousted Navajo farm board official has been accused by the tribe’s attorney general of perpetrating a vast and illegal network of cannabis farms by issuing illegitimate cultivation permits. 

Neither Benally nor his lawyer, David Jordan, responded to requests for comment.  

“We are victims, we lost our money and our reputations all because of a scam by Dineh Benally,” said Peng, the farm manager. “We tried to help the local people here and bring up the economy. Why did they show us so much disrespect and chase us off like rats?”

Masks and social distancing were required at a meeting of potential investors at a Chinese community center in the San Gabriel Valley on Dec. 5. Wufei Yu for Searchlight New Mexico

The project was even more calamitous from a humanitarian standpoint: By the time federal agents arrived on a frigid morning in November, the 36 Chinese laborers who remained were sleeping on the floors of greenhouses, disoriented and close to starving after days of subsisting on ramen noodles. Many had not been paid, despite working 12-hour shifts processing marijuana, seven days a week. Some described being shot at by armed protesters who were angry over the marijuana farms’ destruction of farmland traditionally used for corn, a sacred crop.

“They were being horrifically, physically, emotionally, psychologically abused and exploited right under our noses,” said Lynn Sanchez, who oversees trafficking services at The Life Link, an Albuquerque-based service provider. It was Sanchez who assessed the Chinese laborers at the request of the New Mexico public defender’s office. “They were just skin and bones. They were essentially trapped on the farms with no way to leave. They didn’t speak English. They really had no idea what was happening or what to do.”

“These people aren’t criminals,” Sanchez said. “They are victims of labor trafficking.” 

The Chinese investors fared little better. Many had cashed in their retirement accounts, taken out high-interest loans and borrowed money from friends and family to finance plots of marijuana farmland—only to lose everything when law enforcement shut the farms down. Some of them ended up homeless and stranded in the high desert.

“It’s not as simple as seeing someone holding people behind barbed wire and forcing them to do labor,” said Truong of the L.A. City Attorney’s Office. “The workers might make a choice to go do a job out of state, but they don’t know until they get there what that situation looks like, and by then it’s a little too late. I don’t know how much of a choice you’re making when you find yourself miles and miles from anywhere with no easy way to leave.” 

Nevertheless, detecting trafficking can prove extremely difficult for law enforcement — a task further complicated by an ill-defined chain of command in government and a shortage of Mandarin-speaking investigators, according to a federal employee familiar with the matter.

Altogether, law enforcement picked up more than 50 Chinese immigrant workers at the marijuana farms in northwestern New Mexico, including 17 who were charged in October with felony drug trafficking and conspiracy after local police discovered them processing thousands of pounds of illegal cannabis in a budget motel.

The state district attorney agreed to drop most of the charges after public defenders and service providers determined the workers to be labor trafficking victims, a type of exploitation involving the procurement of labor through force, fraud or coercion. At least five have since qualified for and received reparations from the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparations Commission, according to the commission’s director, Frank Zubia.  

One worker is a 36-year-old restaurant employee who goes by the name Anson. He told Searchlight that he had routinely worked 15-hour daily shifts and slept on the floor of greenhouses — without ever being paid. 

“We were told it would be a good job for us and that it was completely legal,” he said. Instead, he recalled a harrowing occasion in which a small group of protesters carrying sticks and knives entered the farm where he was working, demanding that the workers leave. When Anson and 40 of his fellow workers saw the group approaching, they quickly picked up pruning shears, shovels and whatever other makeshift weapons they could find, pushing the protesters out of the farm and onto the street — until one of the protesters fired a warning shot toward the Chinese workers. 

“The whole experience was crazy,” he said. “We all have to make a living, that’s why I went to New Mexico. I never thought it would be like it was. I was supposed to get $12,000 for my work, and now I have given up on getting it.”

On Nov. 9, he was discovered and picked up during the raid by federal agents, their weapons drawn. A coalition of anti-trafficking advocates, led by The Life Link, facilitated Anson’s return to Chicago, where he now holds a job at a Vietnamese restaurant. So disturbing was the incident that he still has not told his family what happened in New Mexico. 

Such experiences haven’t stopped others from trying their luck. As Richard Yue, a worker who’s since moved to Oklahoma sees it, he doesn’t have many options. “Everyone is laid off from the restaurants,” he said. “How else am I going to put food on the table for my family?”

Or as another worker said, “I love to work in the marijuana industry. Some risk is worth faster earnings.”

Richard Yue, one of the workers in Bryan Peng’s New Mexico workforce, sets up a greenhouse at the Big Buddha Farms in Oklahoma. Wufei Yu for Searchlight New Mexico

Razed but unfazed

In November, Bryan Peng was busy directing his crews to disassemble the 35 greenhouses he had built in the Shiprock Chapter of the Navajo Nation. He barely managed to get his workers out before 21 law enforcement agencies descended on the land and razed the entire harvest.  

By the end of this year, he expects to relocate his entire 50-man workforce to Wilson, Oklahoma, an isolated stretch of rural farmland halfway between Dallas and Oklahoma City.

Big Buddha Farms promises to be lucrative — more than 50 acres of farmland, with 200 greenhouses, several outdoor marijuana fields, and a facility for producing concentrated THC oils and waxes, all located behind 10-foot-high wooden fencing and a thick canopy of oak and brush. If all goes as planned, it will be more than enough to make up the $1 million loss he says he incurred from the federal raids in New Mexico.

Peng is one of at least four farm operators from Shiprock who applied for and received state-issued permits to supply Oklahoma’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry — the biggest such market in the country on a per capita basis, Politico Magazine recently reported, with nearly 10 percent of the population holding medical marijuana cards.

In the two years since Oklahoma legalized medical pot, the state has licensed almost 6,000 grow operations, more than five times the number in Colorado. Unlike other states, growers in Oklahoma have no cap on the number of plants they can grow. 

“It’s a very attractive business because it’s fast money,” Peng said. “But you have to have the right philosophy to succeed. I am careful to put together the right team. I am always good to my workers, I never hurt anybody.”

‘Not equipped in the slightest’

The business opportunities are not limited to Oklahoma’s legal medical cannabis market. According to Irving Lin, much of the marijuana grown in Oklahoma — like the black-market cannabis in Shiprock — is sold to distributors and buyers out of state.

His customers include medical marijuana dispensaries eager to avoid the higher taxes and overhead of state-sanctioned cannabis in California and elsewhere, he explained.

“They come from Kentucky, from Canada, all over the place,” Lin said of the distributors. “It is very expensive to run a dispensary. We reduce their cost.”

Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, confirmed that his agency has received reports of cannabis farms siphoning part of their harvest to buyers out of state. But given the sheer number of grow sites, Woodward said the state is “not equipped in the slightest” to fully investigate the matter.

Two hundred miles north of Peng’s farm, an 81-acre piece of farmland is currently being transformed into a marijuana operation with 20 workers — all veterans of the Navajo debacle, all employees of a Chinese investor known as Anna Ho.

Though she claims to have lost $1 million in the failed Navajo venture, Ho apparently had more than enough to stay in the game. She said she pays each of her workers $3,000 a month plus a bonus. If things go as expected, she anticipates hiring at least 50 more workers “through my friends at job agencies.”

“Back in the day, we ‘hung the head of a goat and sold dog meat,’” Ho told Searchlight, using a Chinese idiom to describe the tricks she played on the Bureau of Cannabis Control, California’s marijuana licensing department.  

“To apply for legal licenses for my business is what I focus on right now,” she said, sitting in a boba tea shop in Oklahoma City’s Asian District. “Talks with local dispensaries are ongoing. And the coming spring will look great.”

This report was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.  

Ed Williams, a Searchlight investigative reporter, covers child welfare, social justice and other issues. In 2022, he was selected for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network to produce stories about abuses...

Wufei Yu is a Chinese journalist based in New Mexico. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, he has written for The New York Times, Outside Magazine, Eurasianet, NBC News, Initium Media and others....