Curry County Sheriff John Bishop isn't the only one waiting for the outcome of the May 21 tax property levy question.

He believes the Mexican Mafia is lurking on the sidelines - in the forests, actually - waiting to move in when law enforcement forces are further reduced if voters don't approve the ballot question.

Curry County's tax levy asks voters to increase property taxes by $1.97 per $1,000 assessed valuation for those living in unincorporated parts of Curry County and $1.84 for those living within the county's three cities.

Without the increased revenue from a tax levy approval, the jail will likely close, the sheriff's office would contract with Coos County Jail for three beds for local inmates, the DA's office would only prosecute the worst cases, only two deputies would be on the payroll and other dramatic cuts would be made in fundamental county departments.

"It's just one of the many things these cash-strapped counties will be dealing with," Bishop said.

Those closest to the issue say the situation in Josephine County is merely a sign of what's to come here.

"We've done a great job here of keeping people safe," Bishop said. "They (citizens) have a false sense of security that it can't happen here. It's here. Whether people want to argue it's here or not, it's here. Other police departments, other sheriffs, will tell you that."

The gangs primarily deal in marijuana and narcotics, but have expanded to cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. Gang violence is on the rise in Mexico, and the problem is spreading.

Local busts

Bishop is reminded of a bust several miles up the Pistol River drainage two years ago, where 22 officers from Curry and Coos counties hiked six hours to find more than 10,000 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $20 million.

That same week, officers found 583 marijuana plants in a canyon near Mount Emily off Forest Service Road 1107 in Curry County.

Authorities linked both to one of the Mexican drug cartels infiltrating Northern California and Southern Oregon that year.

"We've been dealing with them, with outdoor marijuana grows for years," Bishop said. Talk with people in Josephine and Jackson counties, and they're dealing with them, as well."

Crime has increased dramatically in Josephine County since voters there overwhelmingly rejected a tax levy last May that would have funded law enforcement. Half of Oregon's counties have seen less money in general fund coffers as OandC funds have decreased in recent years.

Without the funding, Josephine County was forced to release about half its jail population and reduce the number of officers on the streets. Some have said Grants Pass is slipping into a vigilante-type Wild West, and citizens in Cave Junction have taken to the streets - armed with guns - in attempts to curb criminal activity.

Drugs and gangs

The Pistol River bust seems to have deterred gang activity - for now, he said.

It's not like the area doesn't see its fair share of illegal activity pass through anyway.

"We have murderers, drugs, kidnap victims, travel through here all the time," Bishop said. "We know because they get caught in other areas and say they came through here."

He cited a 16-year-old who was killed in Tillamook last month. The alleged murderer later committed suicide in Humboldt County in California.

"He traveled down 101," Bishop said. "Dope has been (seized) north and south of us that has come through here. They have their hands into everything, but the thing we deal with most is marijuana grows."

Highway 101 is one of two of the preferred routes used by those involved in crime - the other being Highway 97 through Bend - that gets people from Mexico to Canada. Interstate 5 is sometimes avoided because it goes through cities with larger law enforcement departments.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters last year said gangs hadn't yet made much of a mark in the county he protects, attributing it to its distant locale from the international border.

"But we are not ruling anything out."

A pair of shoes

The Mexican American inmates in the California state prison system separated into two rival groups in 1968 after a member of La Eme - now known as the Mexican Mafia and comprised of members of those from the southern end of California - stole a pair of shoes from a member of the Norteandntilde;os, those from the northern part of the state.

The Norteandntilde;os, affiliated with the Nuestra Familia, was created to protect Mexicans in prison. But a perceived level of abuse by members of La Eme escalated to what is now the longest-running gang war in California.

The gang primarily deals in marijuana growing operations and smuggling, but has branched out into the world of methamphetamine.

Police agree the cartels are responsible for almost all the large marijuana grows on public lands. In 2010, more than 125,700 plants, with a street value of $283 million, were pulled from Southern Oregon forests.

That same year, two Jackson County sheriff's deputies shot and killed a Mexican national suspected of guarding a cartel garden in the north end of that county. Some gardens are even booby-trapped, and police in Northern California have engaged in gun battles with growers.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, seven Mexican cartels are the most active in smuggling drugs into the United States.

The Sinaloa Cartel, based along Mexico's Pacific coast, ships hundreds of tons of coke, pot and heroin into the U.S. They compete with the Tijuana Cartel.

"We hammered them hard," Bishop said of the Pistol River bust. "We forced them out. But they just moved south, north and east of us. They'll eventually come back.

"Look at the difference between here and Crescent City - it's night and day," he added. "We have them convinced that, right now, 'don't do it in Oregon.'"