RIFLE, Colo. — An illegal marijuana growing operation raid in rural western Colorado has prompted a federal investigation into possible human trafficking to determine whether Chinese nationals found tending the plants were forced to work there, officials said Thursday.

Authorities arrested 14 Chinese nationals and seized more than 9,700 pounds of pot Monday from the suspected illegal grow site near the Colorado River in western Colorado.

The 12 men and two women arrested were working at the site and authorities said they believe about six more fled on foot.

Now officials are trying to determine whether human trafficking or forced labor was involved. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Drug Enforcement Administration are helping with the investigation.

Garfield County Deputy Sheriff Walt Stowe told The Denver Post (https://goo.gl/Ta6rVU ) that investigators are looking into whether the Chinese nationals had been forced to work at the marijuana growing operation.

Investigators had not located the owner of the property.

Authorities said it was the latest example of illegal drug traffickers seeking safe haven in Colorado’s flourishing marijuana industry to ship the drug out of state. Several raids in recent months have taken aim at out-of-state pot rings, including some in rural areas.

“It’s not unusual to have organizations come to the state to set up shop,” said Jim Gothe, group supervisor and spokesman for the DEA in Denver. “It’s in keeping with what we’ve been seeing in the last several years.”


Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com