Five Payson-area Gila County Narcotics Task Force undercover officers were called April 20 to north of Globe to assist in the investigation of an illegal marijuana growing operation of more than 7,000 plants.
According to one of the local officers, the investigation began after the task force received a tip that marijuana was being grown on U.S. Forest Service land.
"(The tip) was received from a citizen who also saw two suspects in the area where the marijuana was being cultivated," the GCNTF officer said. "It's those type of tips that are greatly appreciated."
When officers arrived at the site, they found the marijuana plants, but not the suspects.
"We had information that the suspects knew (officers were on their way to the site) and they abandoned it," the officer said.
With assistance from sheriff's deputies and Forest Service employees, the officers immediately began excavating the plants.
Random samples of the marijuana will be kept in law enforcement laboratories and the remainder of the plants probably burned, the officer said.
The estimated street value of the marijuana is $2.5 million, and the investigation continues.
Finding a large field of marijuana is nothing new for GCNTF officers.
Two years ago, officers burned nearly 19,000 mature plants found growing near Young.
According to the Payson undercover officer, drug dealers choose secluded areas on public lands near a water source.
The fields are usually in drainages, small canyons or creek bottoms. While most irrigation systems use a gravity-fed drip method, drug agents have discovered more sophisticated set ups.
"We found fields where generators, pumps and 1-inch rolled black tubing was used," an officer said. "We've even seen systems where they pump water, up to a quarter of a mile, uphill."
Those who tend the fields are often not there by choice.
"Sometimes they've been kidnapped or maybe working off a smuggling debt," the task force officer said.
"They are usually taken blindfolded and dropped off to look after the fields.
"(The illegal growers) drive by and throw off a little food for the men."
The advice from the GCNTF to anyone who might stumble on a marijuana field is to plot the location and immediately notify the task force, at (928) 474-0728, of its whereabouts.