Three men were arrested Thursday as part of an illegal marijuana-growing operation in Southern California that was funded with money from China, federal prosecutors said.
More than 1,600 pot plants were found growing in seven large homes raided in neatly kempt San Bernardino County neighborhoods.
The alleged coordinator of the scheme was a real estate agent who spent more than $5 million to buy the homes with money wired from the Guangdong Province of China, authorities said.
Black market, overseas funding
The case represents the latest in what prosecutors said is an increasing amount of overseas money fueling black market marijuana growing operations where it’s legal for adults.
“In states that have decriminalized marijuana, we have seen an influx of foreign money used to establish grow operations, with much of the marijuana being destined for out-of-state consumers,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said.
In April, federal and local law enforcement agents seized about 100 houses in Northern California that were purchased with money wired to the U.S. by a Chinese-based crime organization and used to grow massive amounts of pot. Colorado authorities have said Cuban syndicates are behind some of the growing operations in that state.
Southern California case
The Southern California operation was being run by Lin Li, also known as Aaron Li, 37, who purchased the homes, ran the shell companies that managed finances and paid utility bills, prosecutors said.
Ben Chen, 42, and Jimmy Yu, 44, were allegedly cultivating the crop.
The three face charges of growing and distributing marijuana.
Attorneys for the three did not immediately return emails seeking comment.
Messages seeking comment left on Li’s cellphone and an email address listed in court documents were not immediately returned.
Prosecutors said the pot was being sold in California and Nevada.
Marijuana is legally available for sale in California for recreational and medical use, though it is strictly regulated. While it remains illegal under federal law, U.S. authorities have typically only prosecuted the most egregious cases.