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Feds say charges likely in human trafficking case

Robert Hammer, Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge, speaks about the alleged use of forced labor at illegal marijuana farms in Southern Oregon, during a Zoom press conference Thursday.
Homeland Security is working with state and local agencies to investigate a large marijuana grow thought to involve forced labor

No federal charges have been filed in an alleged 200-person human-trafficking case in the Illinois Valley that started with a migrant worker left for dead at a Cave Junction gas station last summer, but a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations employee says he’s confident criminal charges will follow when the investigation is complete.

Robert Hammer, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ Seattle office, said the feds are looking into evidence of false claims and forced labor surrounding an Aug. 17 raid on a 1,300-acre suspected illicit marijuana grow at Q Bar X Ranch in Kerby.

The Seattle office oversees the federal agency’s Pacific Northwest Division.

In a Thursday press conference via Zoom, Hammer offered few specifics about the agency’s role investigating reports of forced labor and squalid working conditions at the grow site in rural Josephine County allegedly linked to a drug-trafficking organization out of Mexico.

HSI helped interview approximately 200 workers at the site following a raid that drew 17 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies from as far away as Bend, Eugene and Klamath Falls, according to Josephine County Sheriff’s Office reports at the time, and others from out of state, according to Hammer.

“I’m confident that these investigations that are running right now will result in some charges,” Hammer said. “Just because we haven’t seen any federal charges doesn’t mean we haven’t encountered these victims, doesn’t mean that we haven’t provided resources to these victims and protections (in the form of law enforcement assistance visas) to some of these victims.”

The investigation began when a worker was found deceased at a gas station in the Cave Junction area, according to Hammer.

“This one came on our radar as a result of a death of a believed worker,” said Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel, in a KDRV livestream recording of an Aug. 18 press conference about the case.

“What we’re seeing is truly disgusting, people living in shanties, no running water, eating maybe twice a day if they’re lucky,” Daniel later added.

A Homeland Security Investigations spokesperson did not have the identity of the worker found dead. An email message to the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office was not returned Friday.

Hammer alluded to the Kerby operation as he described the proliferation of drug trafficking organizations based out of Mexico, China and eastern Europe and a dramatic shift in tactics after decades of growing in Mexico or concealing grows in national forests.

“If I talk about marijuana in Oregon, not a lot of people get excited about marijuana in Oregon,” Hammer said. “But if I talk about Mexican drug cartels or Mexican DTOs moving in to the area abandoning their traditional methodology ... bringing in migrant workers who are being worked literally to death — to the point that they’re being dropped off at local gas stations — the interest level and the desire to get after these individuals that are doing this has increased.”

Hammer said his team is exploring whether workers at remote grows are truly free to go. The migrant workers have no car and no money, because the grow operations don’t pay until harvest.

Many times, the workers don’t speak English and don’t even know the nearest town.

“We have real concerns about the safety of the predominantly migrant workers that are being brought to this community sometimes under the deception that they’re being asked to work on hemp farms,” Hammer said.

As the demand for labor at unlicensed grows in Southern Oregon draws more migrant workers, Hammer said police are looking at ways to build and strengthen trust with non-government agencies and migrant workers themselves. Homeland Security staff are trying to educate community and outreach nonprofits that visas are available to human trafficking victims, even if they’re undocumented.

“There are protections in place for these folks if they do choose to come forward,” Hammer said.

Hammer encouraged anyone who feels trapped in a trafficking situation to call 911 knowing that Southern Oregon law enforcement agencies are sharing information and are capable of working together.

“One of the largest operations was put together at the Q Bar X Ranch in a very expeditious fashion — mobilizing the resources from state, local and federal and even out-of-state — based upon a simple 911 call,” Hammer said.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.