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Workers sue over alleged forced labor, human trafficking related to illegal pot grow on Navajo Nation

Two defendants have been named in a lawsuit alleging forced labor and human trafficking stemming from an illegal marijuana grow operation on the Navajo Nation. A group of workers who immigrated from China say they were lured to northern New Mexico under false pretenses and forced to work 14 hours a day trimming marijuana. That’s according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in state court.

Job advertisements for the operation in Shiprock promised $200 per day, housing and food in exchange for “gardening” and “flower cutting.” But when the workers arrived in New Mexico, the complaint says, their phones and car keys were taken away, they were barred from leaving and, in some instances, family members were separated.

The lawsuit names as defendants Navajo businessman Dineh Benally and Irving Lin, a Taiwanese entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. It also names associates of Benally and Lin, as well as businesses linked to the farming operation, which authorities say ballooned to nearly two dozen farms and more than 1,100 greenhouses spread across 400 acres It’s illegal to cultivate marijuana on the Navajo Nation. At least 19 rooms at a motel in nearby Farmington supported the operation, the complaint alleges.

In late 2020, federal, state and tribal authorities also raided the Shiprock-area farms, destroying a quarter-million plants. The Navajo Nation Department of Justice sued Benally, leading to a court order halting the operation that the lawsuit says Benally and his associates ignored.

Marijuana cultivation is illegal on the Navajo Nation.