Thousands of plants found in 40 houses

ATLANTA - Federal authorities announced Tuesday that 25 people have been indicted on charges of operating more than 40 marijuana grow houses in 14 Georgia counties.

According to the indictment, 8,638 plants yielding about one pound of marijuana each and 2,279 pounds of processed marijuana were seized. U.S. Attorney David Nahmias called the operation "as complex a scheme as we have ever seen in Georgia."

"This is pretty clearly an example of organized crime in suburbia," said Jack Killorin, the director of the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which was also involved in the investigation.

The marijuana was grown hydroponically - an expensive process that uses a nutrient solution instead of soil - usually in unfinished basements retrofitted with elaborate electrical systems needed to siphon off the massive amounts of electricity required. The process yields a plant twice as potent as regular marijuana, valued at about $5,000 per pound.

The investigation began in February after authorities received a tip from Miami that a grow house operation involving Cuban nationals there had moved north to Georgia.

According to the indictment, Merquiades Martinez, 36, of Fayetteville, and Juan Carlos Martin-Lopez, 38, of Loganville, ran the operation. Gerson Carranza, 26, of Monroe, and Blanca Botello, 35, of Fayetteville, were real estate agents who are accused of obtaining the residences that were converted into grow houses.

Ms. Botello also owned a hydroponics business used to purchase and distribute equipment for the grow houses, according to authorities.

The remaining defendants either owned the grow houses - homes costing $300,000 to $500,000, authorities said - or vehicles used to distribute the marijuana, or helped grow or process the drugs. Many of the defendants are related by blood or marriage, and most are legal U.S. residents, authorities said.

The discovery of grow houses in Georgia comes as investigators are increasingly seeing suburban homes in middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods turned into marijuana farms. A problem for years on the West Coast and in Canada, scores of grow houses are showing up in the South and New England.

Each house could produce a crop of between 300 and 400 plants every 90 days, which works out to about $8 million per year. According to the DEA, more than 400,000 plants with a potential annual value of $6.4 billion were seized from grow houses in the U.S. last year - up from about 270,000 the year before. That is less than 10 percent of the marijuana plant seizures in the U.S.; most pot is grown outdoors on farms and in ditches, backyards and gardens.

Investigators employed tips, surveillance and information from the power company on electricity usage to find the Georgia grow houses, most of which were said to be operating for about two years.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said the investigation included Barrow, Butts, Coweta, Fayette, Forsyth, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry, Jackson, Jasper, Jones, Newton, Rockdale, and Walton counties.