Rows of greenhouses with mounds of cannabis recently seized by law enforcement.


A police raid near Shiprock has all but ended an illicit cannabis-growing operation

By Ed Williams and Don J. Usner|November 11, 2020

Photography by Don J. Usner.

SHIPROCK, N.M. — A coalition of 20 federal, state and tribal law enforcement entities descended on a network of Shiprock farms on Monday, capping a months-long investigation into illegal marijuana cultivation and possible labor trafficking on the Navajo Nation. 

Throughout the day, teams of law enforcement officers — including agents from the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) — removed marijuana plants by the thousands, loading them onto dump trucks and burying them in large pits. 

Law enforcement will not yet comment on the volume, but San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari described the seizure as an amount that will “knock you back in your chair.” Navajo Nation police had previously reported that only five of 36 cannabis farms remained in operation; if true, the enormous piles of plants confiscated this week would be only a fraction of what was growing a few months ago. 

The action came on the heels of a Sept. 23 investigation by Searchlight New Mexico revealing that a network of farms on Navajo land, operating under the guise of hemp cultivation, was covertly growing high-end black-market marijuana. The cannabis farms, overseen by local Navajo Farm Board President Dineh Benally, employed more than 1,000 low-income Chinese immigrant workers and investors from California and New York — many of whom were given fraudulent cannabis cultivation licenses and contracts portraying the farms as legal entities.  

Workers included Navajo children as young as 10, the Searchlight investigation revealed. That finding, along with reports of Asian laborers attempting to flee the farms, prompted the U.S. State Department’s human trafficking unit and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich to initiate separate investigations. 

After a tribal court issued a temporary restraining order on Sept. 18, Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco told Searchlight his officers had seized “several thousand pounds of marijuana” — but that a handful of farms continued cultivating cannabis in defiance of the order.   

The marijuana farms have created simmering tensions throughout the community of Shiprock. Incensed at the destruction of farmland traditionally used to grow corn, a staple food crop that is integral to Navajo ceremonies, corn farmers and other residents have begun carrying weapons. Protesters have marched on more than a dozen occasions, demanding that law enforcement shut down the cannabis farms and, on at least one occasion, setting fire to several greenhouses.

During the police raid yesterday, jubilant neighbors brought pizza to Navajo officers who assisted in the operations.

In a press release, the FBI said agents had “executed federal search warrants in the area of Shiprock, N.M., on the Navajo Nation,” but declined to give further details. Frank Fisher, spokesman for the FBI’s Albuquerque office, told Searchlight he could not yet comment on whether arrest warrants would be issued for Dineh Benally or other organizers of the marijuana farms.  

Ed Williams, a Searchlight investigative reporter, won the News Leader Association’s Frank A. Blethen Award in local accountability reporting for his 2019 stories about abuses in the foster care system. He also was an NLA award finalist in 2020 for an expose about the abusive discipline of students with disabilities. Ed has been a reporter in both the United States and Latin America, working for print, digital and radio outlets. He spent seven years in public radio before joining Searchlight, where he covers foster care, social justice and other issues. He was a 2016 USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellow and earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2010.

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Don J. Usner was born in Embudo, N.M., and has written and provided photos for several books, including The Natural History of Big Sur; Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza; Benigna’s Chimayó: Cuentos from the Old Plaza; Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve (winner of a Southwest Book Award); and Chasing Dichos through Chimayó (finalist for a 2015 New Mexico – Arizona Book Award). Don contributed a chapter and photographs to The Plazas of New Mexico (also a winner of Southwest Book Award), and writes for periodicals as well. His photographs were featured in the photography journal Lenswork and in an online blog of The New Yorker.