The Bizarre Chinese-Native American War Over Marijuana in New Mexico
When Xia (not her real name) first heard about the job as a "flower cutter", she pictured roses.
Details were scant, but a roommate told her it was 10 days' work for $200 a day, room and board included. Unemployed in the pandemic and unable to send money back to her adult children in southern China, Xia had been living at one of the crowded boarding houses common in the large Asian immigrant enclave of LA's San Gabriel Valley. The job sounded like a fine temporary solution.
In early October, Xia and five other women made the 11-hour drive to the outskirts of Farmington, a small city nestled in the stunning but sparsely-populated high desert of northern New Mexico. When they arrived, their new boss checked them into a bright pink, roadside motel called the Travel Inn.
In a series of rooms on the first floor, Xia and her co-workers sat in chairs around heaps of plant material that were delivered by rental van in the night, trimming the "flowers" off the top. These were definitely not roses - the fan-leafed plants reminded Xia of àicǎo, or silvery wormwood, which the Chinese burn to ward off mosquitoes. The piles smelled so strongly that the odour hung around the motel like a cloud.
But for the moment, Xia was content. A convivial middle-aged mother of two, she had worked many jobs since arriving in the US in 2015 - home carer, nanny, masseuse. This was a lot less lonely.
"I was happy. I could talk to other people at work," she recalls in Mandarin. "I much prefer cutting flowers."
Just three days into their work, there was a knock at the door. Xia assumed it was someone calling them to dinner, until she saw men in uniforms with badges. Initially, it was impossible to communicate, until an officer who spoke Mandarin arrived. He asked the workers if they knew what kind of "flowers" they were cutting. One by one, they shook their heads.
"I wasn't afraid. I thought, 'I didn't commit any crime,'" recalls Xia. "When they put the handcuffs on me, I realized it's serious."
As a police convoy drove the workers to jail, someone attempted a joke: "Hey, we are almost 60 years old, and it's our first time being handcuffed and riding a police car!"
With no translators to help communicate with law enforcement or her court-appointed lawyer, Xia says that for days she did little more than sit on her bunk and cry. She assumed the worst: that whatever she'd done would land her in prison doing hard labour, and she would never make it back home.
"I thought, 'My life is over,'" she says. "I thought of my son, and that he wouldn't even know if I died in America."
Meanwhile, her mugshot and those of her co-workers were all over the local news. They'd been charged with multiple felonies for trafficking, conspiracy and intent to distribute a controlled substance: high-grade marijuana.
What Xia did not know was that over the summer, about 30 minutes up the highway from the bright pink motel, a massive marijuana farming operation had sprung up in the tiny town of Shiprock on the Navajo Nation reservation. Hundreds of Asian migrant workers like herself had flocked there from all over the US to live and work on the farms, having lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
It was part of a recent, surprising expansion of Chinese-American investment into the US cannabis industry. Investors sought to recoup losses from shuttered restaurants, spas and tourism businesses by ploughing millions into cannabis - all despite the fact that marijuana remains a social taboo in the Chinese immigrant community.
While hardly the only minority community interested in cannabis, in rural parts of the US, the Asian workforce stood out. This set the stage for a bitter fight with locals on the Navajo Nation, where unscrupulous entrepreneurs took advantage of the complex and confusing laws governing the industry, and set the farms on course for disaster.
"Everybody at one time was for the hemp because they lost their jobs in the pandemic," recalls one Navajo Nation resident. "And then all of a sudden things changed... I think it turned everybody against one another."
The view from the top of Bea Redfeather's property on the Navajo Nation is breathtaking and severe. To the southwest is the cathedral-like Tsé Bitʼaʼí, or Shiprock pinnacle, a giant rock which rises nearly 1,580ft (480m) from the desert floor. Redfeather, a petite, 59-year-old tax accountant and silversmith, has lived here almost 30 years.
"This was peaceful," she says, looking out over the horizon. "Calming."
All that changed in early June, when Redfeather saw an enormous lorry jostling down the narrow frontage road that separates her property from her neighboor's. A group of men got out and started unloading equipment into the empty field.
It astonished Redfeather that on a reservation where new development is tightly controlled by tribal bureaucracy, a large-scale farming operation was going up across the street without her even hearing about it. The Navajo Nation was also struggling with a severe coronavirus outbreak, one of the worst in the country, and movement on and off the reservation was supposed to be tightly controlled.
She decided to record what was going on on her phone.
"They're like, 'What are you doing here?'" she recalls. "These are non-Natives. So of course, I fired back saying, 'What are you doing here? You guys aren't allowed here.'"
Not long afterwards, Redfeather says that San Juan River Farm Board president Dineh Benally drove up, and came over to speak to her. She says he asked her how they could resolve the situation.
"I says, 'I'm going to stop you and what you're doing.' And you could see it in him. He was angry," she recalls.
Benally, a former civil engineer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the eldest son of a formidable tribal politician, was well known for his ambition to introduce the profitable cultivation of hemp and marijuana on the reservation.
New Mexico legalized medical marijuana back in 2007, but state laws have no bearing in Indian country, which is governed by federal and tribal law. In 2017, Benally lobbied hard for a bill that would have legalised medical marijuana in the Navajo Nation. He called his efforts a "crusade" in memory of his late mother, who died of pancreatic cancer.
"Her last four months of her life she suffered," he told the tribal council, according to the Navajo Times. "She didn't have the medication to have a better part of life."
The bill, however, was withdrawn before it ever came to a vote.
Benally saw another way into the industry after the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills made it legal to grow industrial hemp. Like marijuana, hemp comes from the cannabis plant, but it contains almost no THC, the psychoactive compound that causes a user high. However, before hemp can be farmed, the state must first create a system to regulate production, including a way of testing THC concentration. Benally tried to convince the Navajo Nation leadership to do this so that the tribe could begin generating much-needed income from textiles and CBD oil products. But the council never showed much interest.
The same year the medical marijuana bill stalled, Benally ran unopposed for the San Juan Farm Board, an entity with limited powers over farming permits on the reservation. This new position, Benally apparently believed, gave him the authority to approve his own hemp "pilot project."
Through his lawyer, Benally declined to be interviewed for this story or to provide a statement: however, he has previously strongly denied any breach of the law.
"The Navajo - we have the land and the water. We need an entity to help us hit the ground running," he told a reporter in 2019, boasting that he already had 100 acres of hemp growing on his property.
Around this time, a friend of Benally's introduced him to Irving Lin. An irrepressible 70-year-old who immigrated decades ago from Taiwan, Lin made his fortune in California real estate but has no interest in an idle retirement. His enthusiasm for Chinese investment in marijuana is tempered only by his wife, whom he says will not allow him to profit directly from the sale of marijuana. Instead, he runs informational seminars in Los Angeles - mostly for Asian American business people drawn to marijuana cultivation as a way to bolster their flagging business portfolios.
"This is very good for our Chinese people to go into," he says. "I think cannabis sooner or later will be one of the Chinese major businesses."
Lin remembers Benally explaining that the Navajo Nation was a sovereign country, and that he could "control their decision". Lin began acting as matchmaker between his seminar participants and Navajo landowners who were interested in subleasing to the Chinese. This eventually amounted to millions of dollars in investment. These newly-minted farmers started going to their networks of family and friends to find labor.
"Suddenly so many people go there. Every day people are looking for a house, looking for land in a very short period. In six months, we had 1,000 people go there."
Bea Redfeather was seeing the results at her doorstep. Twenty-five "hoophouses", inexpensive greenhouses made of steel frames with heavy-duty plastic covering, appeared seemingly overnight next door. Some farms that had previously grown traditional Navajo corn varieties now had hundreds of hoophouses, lined up in neat rows that stretched to the horizon.
"Corn is a sacred plant," Redfeather told Searchlight New Mexico, the first media outlet to do an in-depth investigation into the farms. "You can't eat hemp and marijuana."
Redfeather became obsessed with documenting the growth of the hemp farms in Shiprock on her Facebook Live. Her videos show heavy machinery grading the fields, trailer homes arriving on the back of trucks, and septic tanks being dug into the ground - the kind of major redevelopment that would normally take years to get approved. Before long, the air all around Shiprock hung with the smell of marijuana.
The Navajo Nation police had been watching Benally, too. They suspected the "hemp" that he had been growing on his own land was actually marijuana. But according to Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco, to shut him down, they had to prove that his crop's THC levels were higher than 0.3%. With no drug lab of their own, Navajo police sent samples to an outside agency.
While the Navajo police waited, the pandemic hit.
"After Covid started, we started seeing a lot of these farms spring up fast," says Francisco, who had only 180 patrol officers trying to enforce health mandates over a 27,000sq-m (70,000 sq-km) reservation. "I think that's what he took advantage of."
The situation was yet another example of just how complex law enforcement in Indian Country can be. Benally's interpretation of tribal hemp laws got his farms started. Meanwhile, because so many of the workers showing up in Shiprock were non-Native, the tribal police had no authority to charge them with anything. Similarly, the San Juan County Sheriff and the Farmington Police Department had no jurisdictional power on the reservation or over Native workers.
The next step would be to involve federal authorities like the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the FBI - but they have limited staffing and can be notoriously slow to respond.
The farms continued to grow throughout the summer, until there were 36 hemp operations in total.
"I've never seen anything like that in my 22-year career," says Chief Francisco. "Never would we have worried about this magnitude of an operation, right under our noses."
When Navajo police responded to complaints, the workers told them they had permission from the landowners to farm there - it turned out that 33 Navajo farmers had signed agreements to sublease their land to people like Benally, and Chinese investors. Like the migrant workers, many Navajo were suffering income losses during the pandemic, and these non-Native investors were paying cash. The farmers provided official-looking "provisional cannabis cultivation" licenses, issued by Benally's farm board.
"We said yes to hemp when [we thought it was] legal," one landowner told the BBC before hanging up.
For Redfeather, the final straw came one morning when a worker from the nearby hemp farm gestured threateningly with what looked like an AK-47 at her mother, who was sitting on their porch drinking coffee.
"I was angry. Really, really angry," she says. For protection, she bought a rifle of her own.
Using her new-found social media capital, Redfeather began organizing protests against the hemp farms. They called themselves Kéyah - or land - Protectors. In the first protest, roughly 100 Shiprock residents shut down a road through town carrying signs that said things like, "We Don't Need Chinese to Farm" and "Hemp is Not the Navajo Way". A young boy on a microphone shouted, "No Asian invasion!"
"This is in no way a racial issue," one resident told the Navajo Times, which broke many of the earliest stories about the unfolding disaster. "They use all our resources within the community starting with the land, water and people… That's not right."
The protests led to tense confrontations between anti-hemp Navajo residents and the Navajo farm owners who had sublet their land for hemp.
"You're a traitor!" protesters yelled at a farm owner across the gate in one particularly heated demonstration.
In another video, Redfeather comes face-to-face with a tall, barrel-chested young man in a tactical vest and a skull face mask pulled over his nose and mouth.
"Isn't your dad a medicine man?" Redfeather shouts at him as he blocks her path on to the farm.
The young man - 25-year-old Brandon Billie - didn't particularly mind these confrontations. As Dineh Benally's head of security, Billie liked the excitement of chasing thieves and vandals off the farms. More importantly, it was steady work at a time when jobs were scarce.
"He hired anybody who was willing to work," Billie says. "The income was low and all that. But it was something. It was a job."
As threats to the workers became more frequent, Billie moved into a mobile home alongside the Asian workers. He communicated with them using translation apps and says they hosted cookouts together. The Chinese made spicy noodles and roasted a whole pig's head for the Navajo workers. The Navajos cooked fry bread, mutton stew and blue corn mush in return. Billie started to dream about one day visiting his new friends' hometowns in China.
"I called them my brothers and sisters," he says.
But the job was causing problems at home. Although his father initially supported his son's work in hemp, that position became untenable as public opinion turned against the farms. When Billie told his family that he had too much riding on the farms to quit, his father cut off communication.
On the frigid morning of 9 November, Billie had just made a cup of coffee and was about to go back inside his trailer when he heard a loud thud. He turned to see police vehicles crashing over a small dirt hill towards the camp. He says officers jumped out with AR-15s pointed at him, handcuffed him and put him into the back of a state trooper's vehicle.
The same dramatic scene was playing out on farms all over Shiprock. After weeks of planning, a massive task force had finally mobilized, including dozens of officers from Navajo, state and local police, as well as agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Over the course of three days, "Operation Navajo Gold" tore through the farms and seized crops. They quickly proved what everyone already knew: the farms were full of marijuana, not hemp. Agents recovered 60,000lb (2,700kg) of it on 21 farms and in two private homes. In one greenhouse, they found 1,000lb (450kg) of fully-processed marijuana already placed in baggies for individual sale.
Billie and dozens of farm workers were transported to the gymnasium of Shiprock High School. In the same room where the principal had handed him his high school diploma, Billie was grilled by an FBI agent about what he knew about Benally's operation.
Unlike the workers from the Travel Inn, no-one was arrested. The laborers were met by several Mandarin translators from the FBI, and Lynn Sanchez, from the New Mexico Human Trafficking Task Force. It was her job to provide services to the workers now that their homes and job sites had become an active crime scene.
"They looked very scared," says Sanchez. "I just remember looking at this older man, he had to be about 65 or older than that. He had tears in his eyes that just wouldn't fall."
The task force and another organization called Life Link were able to provide funds for travel and compensation for lost wages to a few dozen workers.
Others simply disappeared. Chief Francisco says in the first days after the raid, he heard reports of Asian workers trying to hitchhike and sleeping rough.
Sanchez says that the conditions she saw on the farms, with some sleeping outdoors or on wooden pallets, without access to proper sanitation or medical care, were clear signs of labour trafficking. However, applying the "trafficking" label is complicated, both in a legal sense and for the workers themselves, no matter how squalid the conditions.
"In the informal economy, it might be completely exploitative and it doesn't mean that person is not choosing to do this," says Erin Albright, founder of New Frameworks, an anti-trafficking organization. "There are no other options for them."
Sanchez found that some of the workers did not accept that they were "victims" and declined her assistance.
"It was by mutual consent," one 36-year-old worker told Initium Media, a Hong Kong digital magazine that interviewed many of the Chinese workers in Shiprock. "No-one forced me to do anything."
Sanchez and her organization were also told by a public defender that the 17 workers from the Travel Inn motel were still somewhere in Farmington. They found Xia and her five friends sharing another cheap motel room. After their release from jail, a judge told the flower cutters not to leave New Mexico. They'd been holed up in the room for 10 days, unsure of what to do next, living on nothing but plain rice porridge.
By that point, however, the county prosecutor had been convinced that the women had not knowingly been part of a drug cartel. He dropped the charges. Using funds from Sanchez's trafficking task force, Xia and her friends drove back over the mountains to California.
When her children in China asked why they hadn't heard from her in so long, Xia lied.
"I told them my mobile phone was broken. If they know the truth, they'd be worried," she says.
"Thinking back," she adds, "it's like a nightmare."
Back in the boarding house, Xia was able to rest for a few weeks. But there was still no work and coronavirus case numbers began to surge once again in Los Angeles.
She heard from her friends that some workers had gone directly from the Shiprock farms to ones in Oklahoma - the latest frontier in the marijuana gold rush. A friend told Xia she could get a job with her in a massage parlor, and after that, maybe they could go back to farm work.
"All jobs are tough," she remembers thinking. "I still need to endure, to make a living and to support my family."
So once, again, Xia packed her things and drove off towards the unknown.