While drug agents continue to harvest and burn about 20,000 marijuana plants discovered Aug. 15 in the Calf Pen Canyon raid north of Strawberry, Gila County Sheriff John Armer warns hikers of the dangers they could encounter coming across an illegal pot-growing operation.
"I strongly encourage citizens using the forests to be cautious and vigilant out there," he said. "If you happen to stumble upon an apparent grow, remove yourself immediately, avoid any contact with those who may be tending these gardens and report its location to the appropriate local authorities."
Armer's concerns for public safety heightened after Gila County Narcotics Task Force completed more than a month of surveillance of Mexican nationals tending the marijuana plants in the Calf Pen grow area.
Court records show during the surveillances, agents spotted one of the growers, Oscar Nunez-Medina, wearing camouflage clothing and toting what appeared to be an AK-47 assault rifle over his shoulder.
After arresting Nunez-Medina, agents found numerous rounds of 7.62 ammunition in his jacket. In his backpack, they also discovered a rifle magazine loaded with the same ammunition. According to court records, markings on the ammo boxes indicate the bullets were manufactured in Russia.
Law enforcement agents observed another suspect, Gerardo Manzo-Puido, wearing a handgun on his hip.
Manzo-Puido told agents after being arrested that he was hired to tend the garden by "Ronnie" for $100 a week. He also said "Ronnie" gave him the pistol and told him to protect the marijuana garden, court records show.
Gila County Task Force Southern Area Supervisor Dennis Buller said with that kind of firepower, pot growers could be a lethal threat to anyone who stumbles upon an illegal garden.
Trio say they were hired
During interrogations of the four suspects arrested -- Jesus Castillo-Malendrez, David Valenci-Gonzalez, Nunez-Medina and Manzo-Pulido -- at Coconino County Jail in Flagstaff, three said they had been hired to tend the garden.
Nunez-Medina said he was only camping with the other three and he had found the boxes of ammunition in the forest.
Valencia-Gonzalez said he was hired to work the garden by "Hugo," a cousin of the person who smuggled him into the United States. Valencia-Gonzalez said he was working to pay off his debt to the smuggler, court records show.
Three of the suspects told law enforcement agents that they were hired -- and told to work -- which included watering, pruning and fertilizing -- certain portions of the garden. They said they didn't see other areas of the operation.
Officers working in the canyon described the growing fields as scattered clumps of plants rather than one single large garden.
"It's not like an Iowa corn field," task force commander Steve Craig said.
Although drug agents have estimated the crop as having 20,000 plants, an accurate count won't be known until the eradication effort is completed later this week.
The plants were mature and probably planted two or three months ago, agents said.
The suspects told law enforcement officers they were about to begin harvesting the plants when the raid occurred.
Valencia-Gonzalez said he understood he would receive a lump sum of money once the marijuana was harvested.
Court records show none of the four suspects had documentation to reside legally in the United States.
Agents suspected those arrested -- who remain in Coconino County Jail -- were workers only, and Mexican drug cartels are responsible for the illegal growing of marijuana.
Sheriff lauds task force
While warning the public to be on the lookout for marijuana fields, Armer praised the task force and other agencies for their work in destroying six outdoor marijuana fields since a joint investigation to target criminal drug trafficking was launched June 6.
"There have been a lot of long days and short nights in the past several weeks of observation," he said. "A lot of these (nights) were spent in the field under adverse conditions.
"I cannot tell you how proud I am of their efforts and their abilities."
In the first five raids alone, about 40 tons of marijuana were destroyed, agents said.
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