Multi-agency task force officers -- including Gila County Violent Crime, Narcotic and Gang Task Force undercover agents -- continue to harvest and burn thousands of marijuana plants found during an Aug. 15 raid in Calf Pen Canyon near the Fossil Springs Wilderness 4 miles north of Strawberry.
The destruction of the plants, some of which were 6 feet in height, began Monday but was slowed at midweek when only one Department of Public Safety helicopter was available to haul the marijuana out of the canyon to a burn area manned by U.S. Forest Service workers.
"They called the other helicopters away for other jobs," Gila County task force officer Dennis Buller said.
According to agents on the scene, about 40 officers -- including cadets from the DPS academy -- were in the canyon harvesting the marijuana plants and bundling them in large cargo nets to be hoisted out by helicopters.
Officers who had been in the canyon described the growing fields as scattered clumps of plants rather than one large garden.
Agents said they hope to have all the marijuana out of the canyon and destroyed by late this afternoon.
Third raid in forest
Drug agents have conducted three raids this summer in Tonto and Coconino national forests.
According to Payson-area undercover task force officers, about 67,000 marijuana plants were burned July 24 near Horton Waller. Officers arrested five Mexican nationals tending that garden. Two other Mexican nationals were arrested Aug. 9, and about 4,200 plants destroyed during a raid near Chase Creek.
U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton said a total of 100,000 plants with a street value of about $150 million were destroyed during the three drug busts. The 11 Mexican nationals arrested in the operations were charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, which has a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison up to life.
The four arrested during the Calf Pen raid -- Jesus Castillo-Malendrez, Gerardo Manzo-Pulido, Oscar Nunez-Medina and David Valencia-Gonzalez -- had their initial appearances Aug. 16, and preliminary hearings Aug. 18, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Aspey in Flagstaff. They are being held in Coconino County Jail.
Payson-area undercover task force agents who asked not to be identified, said that during weeks of surveillance the four suspects were observed tending the marijuana plants.
Agents said Nunez-Medina carried what appeared to be an assault rifle slung over his shoulder and Manzo-Pulido had a pistol, but no ammunition.
Two of the suspects told officers they were working for money, another said he was paying off his passage across the border into the United States, and the fourth said he was camping with friends.
Dog apprehends, injures suspect
According to agents, at the onset of the bust, Gonzalez tried to escape and was taken down by a canine officer.
"He was told to stop in Spanish several times, but didn't," the agent said. "The dog chewed him up pretty good."
Among those from the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department dispatched to treat the suspect was EMT Stacy Parkerson.
"(The suspect) had multiple bites on his legs and arms. The bites caused loss of blood and deep-muscle tissue damage. They will need to call a special surgeon to handle his injuries because the bites go deep and pulled the muscle from the bone, it looks very scary. After seeing that, I would never want to face one of those dogs."
A U.S. Forest Service employee who was called in to help burn the marijuana, said "the dog just tore off parts of his arm and leg."
The suspect was transported to Payson Regional Medical Center, held overnight and released for his Flagstaff court appearance.
A growing problem
According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor penned by Danna Karman, Mexican drug cartels -- who task force agents suspect operated the three marijuana fields -- have overtaken Colombian drug traders as the kingpins of world drug traffic.
Early this summer, two Payson task force agents predicted in the Payson
Roundup that cartels would soon be dropping off workers to plant and oversee marijuana gardens in both the Coconino and Tonto national forests.
"After they leave them, the cartel will come by every once in a while and throw off some food for them," one of the agents said.
The agents suspect that those arrested tending the gardens are worker bees only.
At a press conference held Aug. 18 in Phoenix, Charlton called the raid, "a monumental investigation and operation requiring and achieving the highest levels of cooperation from federal, state and local officials. I applaud the exhausting efforts and professionalism exhibited by all these agencies in such an undertaking."
Gila County Sheriff John Armer said the three operations "demonstrate the success of the federal grant programs that provide funding for federal and state task forces statewide."
Arizona Department of Public Safety Director Roger Vanderpool lauded the accomplishments of the Gila County task force. "This operation is an excellent example of how the cooperation among law enforcement agencies can impact the flow of illegal drugs into the communities of Arizona and throughout the country," Vanderpool said.
Among the agencies that assisted the task force in taking down the three gardens were Gila and Coconino County sheriff's offices, U.S. Forest Service, Arizona Department of Public Safety, Flagstaff Police Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Assistant U.S. Attorney for Arizona Steven Logan will prosecute the suspects.
See Photo Gallery: Marijuana groves