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How the Chinese mafia came to control much of the illicit marijuana trade in the U.S.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When states started legalizing marijuana, one of the hopes was that it would cut down on crime because people could buy it legally from licensed sellers. But in some states, including Oklahoma, legalization inadvertently helped organized crime, especially the Chinese mafia, exploit new opportunities. Chinese organized crime has come to dominate much of the illicit marijuana trade in the nation, from California to Maine, according to a new series of investigative reports by a team of four journalists from two nonprofit news organizations, ProPublica and the Oklahoma-based The Frontier.

My guest, Sebastian Rotella, is the lead reporter on this series. For several years, he's been investigating Chinese organized crime in the U.S., Europe and Latin America. He's reported on the connection between Chinese organized crime and China's authoritarian government and how that relationship is helping China expand its influence and power around the world. Rotella worked for almost 23 years for the Los Angeles Times before joining ProPublica in 2010. He covers international security issues, including terrorism, intelligence, organized crime, human rights, and migration.

Part one of the new series focuses on Chinese organized crime's grip on America's illegal marijuana market, which has led to increases in other crimes, including money laundering. Part one was published earlier this month. Part two emphasizes the ties between the Chinese mafia and the Chinese government and will be published tomorrow.

Sebastian Rotella, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I thought - and I think a lot of people thought that legal marijuana was supposed to cut down on crime. So how did legalizing it actually help organized crime expand in a state like Oklahoma?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Thanks much, Terry. It's a pleasure to talk to you. I think what happened was that you have this patchwork across the nation of laws as different states have legalized - still a federal law that makes transport among states illegal and an opportunity to make much more money on the black market. And so what you have is - as you say, in theory, legalization is supposed to regulate and it's supposed to eliminate organized crime. And what you see in places like California and Colorado and, most recently and dramatically, Oklahoma is this feeding frenzy of organized crime groups rushing into these states and getting involved in cultivation and then in trafficking across the country.

GROSS: I think it would be helpful to know. What do you have to do legally - and let's use Oklahoma as an example. What do you have to do legally to grow marijuana there?

ROTELLA: Oklahoma is one of the more wide-open legal frameworks, but basically there it's a medical marijuana law. So you can cultivate marijuana, theoretically, for medicinal purposes. You have to have - be a resident of Oklahoma for at least two years. And there are a series of licenses and state regulations that govern what you do and where you sell it and things like that. What has happened is there have just been a great deal of - an overwhelming number of farms - at one point, there were 10,000 growing operations in Oklahoma - and systematic abuse and violation of those laws, particularly criminal groups paying, illegally, Oklahoma residents to be straw owners and farms that are producing far more marijuana than could be consumed in Oklahoma for medical purposes. And most of that marijuana is going around the country, particularly the East Coast, to be sold illegally.

GROSS: So organized crime gets people to front for them and get a license, and then organized crime can move in and grow. And it looks legal.

ROTELLA: And it has the facade of legality. And what's happening is then taking advantage of the fact that you can get a lot more money, say, if you're selling the dope in New York or on the East Coast. There's smuggling of, you know, truckloads of marijuana and huge profits - you know, billions of dollars being made in this marijuana that's grown in Oklahoma and being trafficked and sold elsewhere.

GROSS: Different states have different laws. And I'm talking about states that have legalized marijuana in one form or another. So how has the Chinese mafia exploited the fact that there are so many different laws in different states?

ROTELLA: You know, these are remarkably agile, mobile, sophisticated groups with lots of resources, partly because the backdrop to this is the way Chinese organized crime has come to dominate money laundering for Mexican drug cartels in the United States and acquired lots of cash. And what they've done with that cash - one of the things they've done is moved into the marijuana business. So when California, in the middle of the last decade, becomes sort of a focus of places as it begins to decriminalize and legalize, you have groups mainly from New York and the East Coast going out to California, buying houses, buying farms, you know, sometimes going into subdivisions and buying, you know, half a dozen houses at a time and setting up indoor grows and producing all this marijuana that is then trafficked mainly on the East Coast.

Then when law enforcement starts to crack down in California and Oklahoma becomes the new hotbed - and starting in 2018, these same groups very sort of quickly and dramatically moved to Oklahoma, sometimes using private planes. You have remarkable scenes of private planes flying from rural airstrips in California to Oklahoma with couriers carrying suitcases full of cash to go out and buy farms in Oklahoma, where land is cheap, and setting up new operations in the new hotspot where they can make even more money because there's really no limits on how big these farms are and how much marijuana they can grow.

GROSS: Yeah. You mentioned that a lot of the California illicit industry moves to Oklahoma. And, like, why Oklahoma? You mentioned that land is cheap there. Is that the main reason why Oklahoma has become such a big state for the illicit growth of marijuana?

ROTELLA: It's partly because the land is cheap. It's also because that medical marijuana law they passed made it particularly easy just to move in, set up and grow. In other states, there are limits on how much you can grow. In Oklahoma, there are basically no limits. So you have these huge operations and thousands of farms growing marijuana and, you know, law enforcement kind of overwhelmed and trying to keep up with it and prevent what is kind of wholesale trafficking to other states.

GROSS: Does the fact that different states have different laws make it harder to enforce the laws?

ROTELLA: Yes, it does. And it also makes it harder because at the federal level, though it is, you know, illegal under federal law to traffic among states, there is some reticence, we're told - some reluctance to get very heavily involved in enforcement of marijuana at the federal level because of this situation where you have lots of states where it's illegal or decriminalized. So the main way that you see federal law enforcement involved is when they're pursuing - say, in the case of the Chinese organized crime groups, they're pursuing sophisticated groups involved in money laundering. And all of a sudden, they'll discover that those same groups that are laundering money for the Mexican cartels to sell fentanyl are also acquiring farms in Oklahoma and making even more money growing and trafficking marijuana.

So there's this patchwork that is - makes things very complicated for law enforcement and particularly with Chinese organized crime, which is very sophisticated and secretive. And there's these, you know, language barriers in places like Oklahoma. You know, state authorities - they just have a lot to learn and have had to work very hard to just figure out these groups and how they work, which are national and international in scope.

GROSS: In order to actually grow the weed, a lot of workers are exploited. You compare some of the workers growing this weed for the Chinese mafia to indentured servants. Many of them are immigrants. Can you describe the labor force for this illicit industry?

ROTELLA: Sure. I mean, these are thousands of workers, most of them themselves Chinese immigrants, many of whom come across the Mexican border. I interviewed one who, you know - it's classic odyssey, coming from China all the way through South America, up across the Mexican border, gets caught, applies for asylum, gets released, makes his way to New York, and he hears that that there's work in the marijuana farms of Oklahoma. So he shows up. He's, you know, in Oklahoma and gets to work and he finds, you know, hundreds and thousands like him. And they are working on these farms.

You know, at best, they're working very long hours for low pay. And at worst they're abused. Their wages are - you know, they don't get paid. There's physical abuse. There's control over them in terms of, you know, being held sometimes at these farms. It's a very difficult, murky world. It's very hard to enforce the protections for workers. You also have prostitution, where there was a case in Oklahoma, for example, where you had, you know, a brothel set up where women - you know, there were human trafficking charges because they were being forced into prostitution to serve the managers and the administrators of these farms at this brothel in Oklahoma related to the marijuana industry.

GROSS: And in terms of working conditions, you describe how law enforcement busted one of these illegal grows, and they thought they were stepping in mud, but it was human excrement. And that's...

ROTELLA: That's correct.

GROSS: Yeah, that's an example of the working conditions in some of these places.

ROTELLA: That's right. And I've seen - you know, and talking to people who have worked on the farms and seeing some videos, you have cases where you have people sleeping basically, you know, on blankets on the floor in the greenhouses, things like that, limited access to bathrooms, long hours - pretty much being held at these farms. I mean, it's a tough environment.

GROSS: How did the Chinese mafia become the organized crime group that dominated the illegal marijuana growing industry in the U.S.?

ROTELLA: I think, as I said, it has to do with this evolution where Chinese organized crime in the past 20 years, where law enforcement was focused on other things - and these are secretive, disciplined, sophisticated organizations - realized that there was a lot of money to be made in the drug industry in the money part of the drug industry. In other words, not selling fentanyl, but laundering the money for the Mexican cartels that sell fentanyl. And that generated, you know, this huge stockpile of cash. And marijuana became attractive because it was profitable and it was low risk in terms of the penalties.

So I think that was something where the Chinese groups realized that this was a way to make money to generate even more cash, which then circles back into the laundering and the migrant smuggling and the other criminal industries in which they're involved. And that became sort of this frontier that they got into, and they used the networks they already had. As I said, a lot of this is run out of New York. I mean, that's sort of one of the main places where Chinese organized crime bosses have sort of nationwide reach. You also have centers in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles. But there was just this realization that marijuana was going to be this boom, and there was going to be all this money that could be made and that that was only going to benefit these other criminal enterprises that there were already going on.

GROSS: Let's talk about the organized part of organized crime. There's a loose confederation of Chinese criminal groups through the nation. How do they coordinate with each other? I think most Americans know something about the Mafia in America. We've seen the movies, you know. So whatever the movies tell us, whether that's true or not, that's - for most of us, that's our conception of organized crime in America. But, you know, how do the Chinese mafia organize? Tell us more about that.

ROTELLA: You know, this is a particularly complex and challenging arena where even people in federal law enforcement will tell me that there's still struggling to understand it and get a grip on it. And they just don't have the kind of visibility and granular detail they have on something like, you know, Italian American organizations or the Mexican cartels. But as you said, it's this confederation of different groups, you know, loose to some extent, but very disciplined in another. And as you move higher in the hierarchy and you move higher in the amounts of money being made, you have the presence of what are called the triads, which are very powerful and historic Chinese organized crime groups rooted mainly in southern China, that have international reach all through the diaspora and that call the shots.

So, as I said, particularly in New York - there's, in fact, there's even an expression in law enforcement of people who work Chinese organized crime. They say all roads lead to Flushing, you know, which is one of the big Chinatowns in New York, the neighborhood of Flushing. And you have bosses there who are calling the shots for a lot of this activity around the country, whether it's money laundering or the marijuana underground trade. In fact, the DEA detects some years ago meetings in New York of high-level triad figures, some of them coming in from China to sit down and sort of keep the peace and distribute territory and keep everyone in this very booming, potentially dangerous world in line. So it's a lot of different groups, but at the highest level you have specific triads, one of them known as the 14K, which are very strong in Asia and which also have a real grip on diaspora communities. And they are overseeing this in terms of the money, in terms of conflicts and in terms of territory.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. My guest is Sebastian Rotella, an investigative reporter for ProPublica. He's the lead reporter on a new series about how the Chinese mafia has come to dominate much of the nation's illicit marijuana trade, from California to Maine, and how the mafia is connected to the Chinese government. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sebastian Rotella, a senior reporter at ProPublica. He's the lead reporter on a new series about how the Chinese mafia has come to dominate the illicit marijuana trade in the U.S., the Mafia's connections to the Chinese government, and how that relationship is helping the Chinese government expand its influence and power around the world. The series is a partnership between ProPublica and another nonprofit news organization, The Frontier, which is based in Oklahoma, where the Chinese mafia dominates the state's illicit marijuana industry. Part one was published earlier this month. Part two will be published tomorrow.

I feel like I have to ask you here - how do you write about this, how do you expose all of this without fearing that you're going to cause, like, anti-Chinese sentiments? - because we see how that was exploited, like, during the Trump administration, you know, accusing China of starting the spread of COVID. And Chinese people really felt endangered in America. So how do you write about this without - preventing that kind of fear and phobia from being fed by this information? And also, since you've described how many Chinese immigrants come to the U.S. through Latin America and then across the Mexican border and some of them end up growing illicit marijuana - they're exploited, but they're part of that industry. So, again, how do you write about all this without kind of playing on people's fears of immigration and of Chinese people in particular, of, you know, fears about the Mexican border?

ROTELLA: You know, it's a very good question, and it's one of my top priorities. And I - when I first started writing about these issues, I really focused first on what's called transnational repression, which is, you know, the persecution of Chinese dissidents and others in diaspora communities. And I think the way you do it is - you know, my sources are, above all, the people I talked to, many of them of Chinese origin or Chinese Americans, and particularly people in law enforcement, particularly people in the human rights arena. And I make a point of talking to them and running things by them.

And what I've tried to reflect is that often you have people in - say, in Chinese American communities who feel like they're in a crossfire because there are the kind of forces that you talk about - you know, demonization or, you know, attacks - anti-Asian attacks, suspicion by law enforcement because, you know, there's lots of Chinese espionage and organized crime that law enforcement is trying to figure out, pressure from the Chinese state if people get out of line and, you know, in terms of their political views, pressure from organized crime.

So I think the way to do it is to be careful and fair and rigorous and - you know, and try and get every perspective. And, you know, that's very important to me. But, again, I think when you're talking about the dangers or the aggressiveness of the Chinese authoritarian regime or Chinese organized crime, you have to remember who the primary victims are. And they are going to be themselves people who are of Chinese origin who are, you know, U.S. citizens and permanent residents and deserve all the protections of this country from that kind of a threat. So this kind of tightrope that you have to walk in covering these issues where you, you know, confront the difficult realities and the true threats without straying into excess or fomenting irrational fears is something I have a lot of experience with and, you know, in covering different kinds of immigration, covering the Mexican border, covering immigration and other countries, is something I'm very aware of when I do this work.

GROSS: So you describe how there seems to be a mutually beneficial relationship between China's government and Chinese organized crime in America - that the government helps fund the organized crime and helps protect it in America. But they also get a share of the profits and are using those profits to expand its power and influence around the world, in part between the international infrastructure program - the Belt and Road project, in which, you know, China is helping fund infrastructure projects in developing countries, hoping to expand its influence there and ingratiate itself to the people there. So can you talk more about that relationship and how China is taking advantage of the profits?

ROTELLA: On the Belt and Road Initiative, there have been public allegations - and there are also cases that indicate in different places, including in Asia and the Pacific - that people in Chinese organized crime, including the 14K Triad, are seen to be aligning themselves with the Chinese government, getting involved in Belt and Road Initiative - in the Belt and Road Initiative. And the trade-off in places around the world, according to people in Western law enforcement and human rights group, is this. You have organized crime playing a role of providing services.

So money laundering for the Chinese elite - a lot of the money laundering that happens of drug money is - involves the Chinese elite, which requires drug money to move their fortunes offshore. You have organized crime involved in helping with transnational repression. And you have political influence operations that have been alleged where - the U.S. government has publicly alleged that Chinese organized crime is working in places like the Pacific and in Southeast Asia to expand political influence. And so that - there's - this is kind of a model that repeats itself around the world.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sebastian Rotella, an investigative reporter for ProPublica. He's the lead reporter on a new series about how the Chinese mafia has come to dominate much of the nation's illicit marijuana trade from California to Maine and how the Chinese government is profiting. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Sebastian Rotella, a senior reporter at ProPublica. He's the lead reporter on a new series about how the Chinese mafia has come to dominate the illicit marijuana trade in America and the mafia's connections to the Chinese government, and how that relationship is helping the Chinese government expand its influence and power around the world. The series is a partnership between ProPublica and another nonprofit news organization, The Frontier, which is based in Oklahoma, where the Chinese mafia dominates the state's illicit marijuana industry.

So the Chinese mafia is not only involved in the marijuana industry, the illicit marijuana industry in the U.S., they're involved with money laundering from Latin America, drug money from fentanyl. Is that right, too?

ROTELLA: That's right. What the DEA and Southern Command and other agencies in a lot of cases show is that Chinese organized crime in the past 10 years pretty much became the dominant money launderer in the Americas for the cartels, particularly the Mexican cartels, that traffic in fentanyl and cocaine in the United States. And so that's become a huge boom area for Chinese organized crime, which is specializing in the laundering of drug money. And that's true also, by the way, in Europe and in Asia. You see enormous amounts of money being moved. You see a lot of cases, a lot of crackdowns in Europe now where Chinese organized crime in places like Italy and Spain and France is becoming the dominant launderer for the different groups involved in trafficking of drugs, both laundering the money and doing things like providing money.

So if somebody needs to do a drug deal and they need cash rather than moving it from one country to another, there are money services provided by Chinese organized crime where cash is available to make those deals. But on the streets of the United States, it's been dramatic because the Mexican cartels had a real challenge if you go back, you know, 15, 20 years with all this cash that was being made on the streets of the United States from different kinds of drugs, how to get it back to Mexico, how to turn it into pesos.

And what Chinese organized crime has done is come in and provide a service where for very low rates and very quickly they can launder that money, get the money back to the cartels in Mexico through networks they have there and through a series of complicated transactions in China, often involving the Chinese elite, who are acquiring that drug money in the United States. They've created this international system that has really benefited both Chinese organized crime and the cartels that deal drugs.

GROSS: Can you give us the basics of the system that Chinese organized crime uses to launder money?

ROTELLA: What you basically have is these two market forces that Chinese money launderers in the United States and in Latin America bring together, which is Mexican cartels making huge amounts of dollars on the streets of the United States that they need to turn into pesos and move into the economy back in Mexico and the Chinese elite in China, people in the United States with relatives, representatives, who want to acquire dollars. And they want to do that in order to circumvent rules in China against moving money out of China in order to get their fortunes offshore.

So to give a concrete example, let's say you have $1 million that a Mexican cartel makes on the streets of Chicago. The Mexican distributors turn that money over to Chinese brokers, who on the one hand direct confederates in Mexico to give the equivalent amount of money in pesos to the Mexican cartel. So they're taken care of right there. That money has been laundered. And then what they do on the streets of Chicago is sell that million dollars to people in the Chinese elite at a high commission, who then have gotten this money, have gotten this cash in dollars, and they pay the Chinese gangsters by moving money among bank accounts in China. So you don't have any money moving across border. You have exchanges of cash on the streets of the United States, and then parallel movements of money in Mexico and China that take care of everyone.

GROSS: One of the many things that really surprised me in your articles is that there are environmental issues involved with the Chinese mafia now because they're sometimes stealing water and electricity to grow marijuana. The indoor grows require electricity, and all of it requires water. How do they steal it? And what's the environmental impact of that?

ROTELLA: You had in California in particular, you know, where there were a lot of indoor grows - you had these groups that were very sophisticated and had sort of a piratical approach to this, where they would do bypasses where they would do makeshift plugs to divert and steal electricity and out in farming communities to divert water. So there was - and you needed huge amounts of electricity and huge amounts of water for these operations. So, you know, there was a real environmental impact there. You also have lots of chemicals being used and pesticides, sometimes banned ones. You have, you know, in these subdivisions where a bunch of homes have been bought up and turned into grows, they pretty much are destroyed because there's all this mold and all these chemicals being used. So in many ways, this is just a very sort of rapacious approach that has a lot of impact on communities and on land and on water.

GROSS: How is this huge illicit marijuana industry - the legal marijuana industry in America?

ROTELLA: Well, you know, that's the classic problem that the legal industry is confronting is that when you have a black market which is avoiding taxes and not providing revenue to the government, which was the point of legalization, the legal market suffers. It affects prices if there's a glut of product. So, you know, it's really a problem wherever you go when there's been legalization, which in theory was supposed to make things regulated and eliminate organized crime from the picture. And pretty much the opposite has turned out to be true. So the so the black market is just - is this constant challenge to making legalization really work.

GROSS: Because the Chinese mafia has some connections to the Chinese government, you refer briefly to how the Chinese government uses the mafia to help spy on Chinese immigrants, including Chinese students. Can you talk a little bit about how that works and the - and whether the people being spied on know that they are, if they have any clue about that?

ROTELLA: I think there are two separate things going on. I think Chinese organized crime is used to spy on diaspora communities, that is immigrant communities, people who have come to stay. And that, I think, is known. And there's almost an ostentatious sense of sending a message to people in the diaspora around the world that, you know, we are watching you and don't get out of line. So you have cases of dissidents being persecuted. You have cases of - where people are - people who are fugitives from Chinese justice being pursued by people, sometimes by these associations, cultural associations whose leaders include people who are underworld figures. Then the question with the students is separate.

What you have - I haven't seen as much organized crime involved in the monitoring of the students. But what you do have is a remarkable apparatus of Chinese student associations at universities all over the world that is in a position where if a student speaks out, say, at a rally, a Chinese student in the United States, let's say, speaks out at a rally about Tibet or the plight of the Uyghurs, that he will instantly get harassed by his fellow students and that the information will get back to China so quickly that a few days later, his family back home will get a visit from the security forces, warning them that their son or daughter in the United States is saying things they shouldn't be saying at a university. So you have a remarkable apparatus of planetary control in that sense.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sebastian Rotella, an investigative reporter for ProPublica. He's the lead reporter on a new series about how the Chinese mafia has come to dominate much of the nation's illicit marijuana trade from California to Maine, and how the mafia is connected to the Chinese government. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Sebastian Rotella, a senior reporter at ProPublica. He's the lead reporter on a new series about how the Chinese mafia has come to dominate the illicit marijuana trade in the U.S., the mafia's connections to the Chinese government and how that relationship is helping the Chinese government expand its influence and power around the world. The series is a partnership between ProPublica and another nonprofit news organization, The Frontier, which is based in Oklahoma, where the Chinese mafia dominates the state's illicit marijuana industry. Part one was published earlier this month. Part two will be published tomorrow.

So one of the people who you write about, who's facing trial now, reminded me of the character in "Breaking Bad," Gus. And Gus is played by, you know, was played by Giancarlo Esposito. And he ran the meth lab that the main characters worked in. And he was connected to, you know, organized crime. And, like the person in your series, he ran a chain of restaurants, highly respected chain. And he was a respected person in the community, you know, seen as a very good and responsible businessman and ingratiated himself to politicians. This is the same kind of profile as one of the people who you write about. That, like, really struck me. And I'm wondering if it struck you and if you ever feel like you are living in a crime movie or a crime TV series.

ROTELLA: I think that the thing, having covered this kind of thing for a long time, that reality often offers up the best stories, you know. And I think the profile you're talking about is something I've seen in a number of cases where you have - I've seen it in the United States, I've seen it in Italy, I've seen it in Latin America, where you have people who are simultaneously considered respectable leaders of their community and who are interlocutors both with, say, Chinese diplomats and local leaders, say, you know, they give campaign contributions to U.S. politicians or they meet in Italy with the mayor of the city or they meet with the consul. But they're also accused of being involved in organized crime, of drug trafficking and things like that. And, I mean, it's quite remarkable to see that. Without, you know - and some of these people have been convicted, others haven't.

But I think - there's a French expert, Emmanuel Jourda, who talks about this. And he says that the Chinese Communist Party looks at the diaspora and sees the most successful, wealthy people as sort of the nobility of the diaspora. And the deal with them, spoken or not spoken, is that if they toe the line and they're patriotic and they gather information on their community, that the Chinese state is fine with what they're doing and doesn't care how they made their money. That's the assertion he makes. And I think there are some cases that are remarkable in that sense, where you have people who are prominent and who interact with both Chinese officials and U.S. politicians, and then are - turn out to be charged with criminal activity.

GROSS: You know, you write that some U.S. officials argue that Chinese authorities have decided, as a matter of policy, to foster the drug trade in the Americas in order to destabilize the region and spread corruption, addiction and death here. Do you think this could be a kind of warfare?

ROTELLA: You know, that's a debate, I think, within the U.S. national security community. And I think - I've talked to a number of people who I think are serious, you know, high level, both current and former, national security officials who make those kinds of allegations. Some of them are, you know, are quick to say that they don't have smoking gun proof.

But certainly there are those who say, for example, with fentanyl, which, after all, the precursors for fentanyl, you know, come from China, where a lot of those precursors are still legal to make and find their way to Mexico, where they're, you know, the fentanyl is prepared in labs and enters the United States and has wrought great havoc and death and destruction in the United States, that China could be doing more in that sense to prevent that, or that with the money laundering that we've described, that there doesn't seem to be a crackdown on these groups that are doing money laundering around the world because a lot of that money is going back to China.

So is this a state that is - where there's a lot of corruption, which I think there is, that - and that this corruption results in this kind of activity? Or is there a more intentional - a policy in some of these arenas? - because, you know, this can be something that weakens their adversary. I mean, enough people have said publicly in the U.S. government and other governments that this kind of activity is going on, that it's something to consider and to give some examination to.

GROSS: There's a lot of people who want to be very conscious that they're buying clothing or food that isn't exploiting workers. And I'm wondering if you think that people who buy marijuana from the underground market might want to think a little bit about who's being exploited?

ROTELLA: I think that's a very good point. I think the conditions that are - that have been described to us and that have been documented in places like California and Oklahoma, but also in - overseas, in Europe, I've heard very strikingly similar stories told to me about people moved around the world, being kept in exploitative conditions, underpaid, abused, who aren't sometimes even sure where exactly they are or they have a vague idea that they're in Oklahoma or in Spain, but not even the city that they're in or the rural, you know, the area that they're in. So there is a - there is systematic exploitation and abuse of these workers in this industry. I don't think there's any question about that. And a lot of them are illegal immigrants, and that is going to, you know, sort of create structural conditions for abuse.

GROSS: I think it was back when you were writing, when you were reporting for the LA Times and you were covering the Mexican border, that one of your border reports inspired two songs on Bruce Springsteen's album, "The Ghost Of Tom Joad," which was released in 1995. Which two songs?

ROTELLA: Bless you for mentioning that because it was a high point in my career at a relatively young age. The songs are "Balboa Park," which is a song about illegal immigrant kids in San Diego. And then - and there's another song called "The Line," which is a sort of from the point of view of a Border Patrol agent at the line at the border in San Diego. And I didn't - you know, it was very funny because I got a phone call one day when I was in San Diego, and it was somebody from a music magazine who said, did you know that Bruce Springsteen thanks you on the liner notes of his new album, "The Ghost Of Tom Joad"? And I said, no, I did not know that (laughter). And one thing led to another.

And it turned out that he had been reading my coverage of the Mexican border and had, you know, especially in the case of that song, "Balboa Park," had really sort of put the article, you know, to music. I mean, he used, you know, the images and the scenes very much and the emotions of that article and put it into this beautiful song. And I ended up being invited to the concert he gave where he - he launched "Tom Joad" in Los Angeles and meeting him and having conversations with him over the years about these issues. But it was a high point.

GROSS: Oh, that sounds great, a lasting relationship.

ROTELLA: We remained in touch. And I saw him at several of his concerts in Europe. And it was striking that he was so interested in those issues as I was, you know. And they're issues about, you know - which you become very passionate, you know, covering the Mexican border about the plight of illegal immigrants, about the dangers of the drug wars. You know, I knew quite a few people covering the Mexican border, you know, brave Mexican law enforcement officials who were killed in the line of duty, people I knew, people who were sources of mine. So that has an impact. And then I very much draw on those experiences and others I've had as a reporter around the world.

GROSS: Sebastian Rotella, thank you so much for talking with us.

ROTELLA: It's been my pleasure. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Sebastian Rotella is a senior reporter at ProPublica. He's the lead reporter on a new series of articles investigating how the Chinese mafia came to dominate much of the illicit marijuana trade in the U.S. The series is a collaboration between ProPublica and another nonprofit news organization, The Frontier. Part one was published earlier this month. Part two will be published tomorrow. So here's one of the two Bruce Springsteen songs inspired by Rotella's earlier reporting on the Mexican border. This is "Balboa Park."


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) He lay his blanket underneath the freeway as the evening sky grew dark. Took a sniff of toncho from his Coke can and headed through Balboa Park, where the men in the Mercedes come nightly to employ in the cool San Diego evening the services of the border boys. He grew up near the Zona Norte with the hustlers and smugglers he hung out with. He swallowed their balloons of cocaine and brought them across the Twelfth Street strip, sleeping in a shelter if the night got too cold, running from the migra of the Border patrol.

GROSS: That's Bruce Springsteen from his 1995 album, "The Ghost Of Tom Joad." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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