A complex legal saga involving forced labor and hemp cultivation
The Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the U.S., has recently charged two tribal members with illegally growing marijuana on its land. The case is part of a long-running legal battle that also involves allegations of forced labor and interference with judicial proceedings.
Who are the defendants?
The two defendants are Dineh Benally, a Navajo businessman and presidential candidate, and Farley BlueEyes, a farmer. They are accused of operating a massive marijuana growing operation in and around Shiprock, New Mexico, where they employed Chinese immigrant workers who were allegedly coerced to trim cannabis plants.
According to tribal prosecutors, Benally and BlueEyes violated several state and federal laws by cultivating more than 20,000 mature marijuana plants at their farms in Torrance County, New Mexico. They also allegedly interfered with the efforts of local authorities to stop their operations by filing lawsuits and appealing court orders.
What are the charges?
Benally and BlueEyes are expected to face arraignment later this month on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana, possession of marijuana for distribution, cultivation of marijuana for distribution, and interference with judicial proceedings. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison and hefty fines.
Benally’s attorney, David Jordan, said that the charges were harassment and that Benally was growing hemp, not marijuana. He claimed that Benally had obtained a license from the state to grow hemp under the Industrial Hemp Research Act of 2018. He also said that Benally had been cleared by a Navajo judge in 2020 to stop his marijuana farms’ operations in northwestern New Mexico.
What is the background?
The controversy over Benally’s marijuana farms first emerged in 2020 when local police discovered Chinese immigrant workers trimming marijuana in motel rooms near Shiprock. This led to raids by federal, state, and tribal authorities, resulting in the destruction of a quarter-million plants.
A group of Chinese immigrant workers sued Benally and his associates for violating their human rights by forcing them to work long hours without pay or proper protection. They also alleged that they were lured to New Mexico under false pretenses by promises of jobs and visas.
Additionally, Benally’s license for another growing operation in central New Mexico was recently revoked by New Mexico regulators due to multiple violations. Inspectors had found about 20,000 mature plants on his property — four times the number allowed under his license.
Benally’s case is particularly noteworthy due to his past as a Navajo Nation presidential candidate who advocated for large-scale hemp farming as an economic opportunity. He reportedly campaigned under the slogan “Let’s grow together.”