LANCASTER, Calif. - Law enforcement authorities cleared numerous illegal marijuana grow locations in the Antelope Valley Tuesday in what the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deemed "the largest operation ever to take place in the history of LASD."
The largest grow discovered Tuesday had more than 70 greenhouses over 10 acres, with an estimated marijuana crop worth $50 million.
By late morning, the sheriff's department reported that authorities have made "several arrests" and expected to recover "several thousand pounds of illegally grown marijuana by the end of today."
Sheriff's officials said the multi-agency operation was designed "to take down illegal cartel operated marijuana groves impacting farmers, families, and businesses." Also involved in the operation were the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Army and sheriff's officials from Ventura and Kern counties, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Villanueva told reporters at a news conference early Tuesday afternoon that more than two dozen search warrants had been served so far, and numerous other locations were being targeted.
"We're going to continue ... until there's not a single marijuana grow left standing here in the high desert," Villanueva said.
"That is a tall order, but ... it needs to happen to basically put this to an end," Villanueva said. "Because we have legal marijuana grows in California. They're very small in number; they're very tightly regulated ... and they're being put out of business by the illegal grows."
Among the problems associated with the illegal marijuana grows were violence, and the use of pesticides and a large amount of water by the criminals, Villanueva said.
"We're estimating that it takes about -- from 2020 numbers alone – it takes about 150 million gallons of water for that harvest," Villanueva said.
"Here in the high desert, water is precious. We have alfalfa farmers, potato and carrot farmers," Villanueva said. "And seeing them go out of business to support illegal marijuana ... which enriches the cartels is something we're not going to tolerate at all."
Villanueva said that in 2020, sheriff's detectives identified 150 illegal marijuana grows in the area, and the number increased this year to more than 500.
"That's how much it grew in the span of just one year -- during a pandemic," Villanueva said. "As you can see, there were some people who were very, very busy during the pandemic."
Villanueva said violent crime "has been associated with these illegal grows."
"In 2020, we had two murders up here in the high desert, attached to illegal grows," Villanueva said. "In March of 2021, a murder victim was found buried in the desert near Lake Los Angeles, and the suspects wanted in connection with the murder operated an illegal marijuana grow right up here in Lake Los Angeles."
In April, a robbery and shootout at an illegal indoor grow operation resulted in a death, Villanueva said.
During the operation, Villanueva told FOX News' Bill Melugin, who accompanied authorities during the raids, that operators of the marijuana farms had gunmen who threatened local residents, and the illegal grows diverted water away from legitimate local farmers. According to the station, the operation targeted more than 70 individual greenhouses, and crews brought in bulldozers provided by the city of Lancaster to flatten the marijuana farms.
More than 400 personnel were involved in the operation, Villanueva said.
"We're going to send a loud and clear message to all the cartels in the illegal operations: your days are over, here; and you need to pack up and leave, or we're going to find you," Villanueva said.
According to authorities, 40 search warrants were served, they plan to serve 500 before they are done. Twenty-three arrests were made, seven weapons confiscated and tons of marijuana are still being rounded up.
FOX 11's Christina Gonzalez contributed to this report