Ten or more Mexican nationals escaped into the forest during an Aug. 15 raid on a series of nine marijuana gardens in Calf Pen Canyon in the Fossil Creek Wilderness area, Gila County Narcotics Task Force agents said.
Although the undercover agents -- who asked not to be identified -- arrested four suspects, evidence in the canyon indicated the presence of more workers, they said.
Agents found seven camps and believe that at least two gardeners were stationed at each camp.
"That means there was a minimum of 14 down there and we have four," an agent said.
Officers found weapons, camping equipment, miles of irrigation piping and gardening tools at the campsites.
The eradication effort included harvesting the plants, loading them into huge cargo nets suspended from 100-foot ropes and airlifting them via helicopter out of the canyon.
Underneath whirling copter blades, Forest Service workers unloaded the plants and carried them to a roaring bonfire. Agents said 105,250 marijuana plants with a street value of $200 million were burned. The eradication effort took more than a week.
The Calf Pen Canyon raid was the sixth Gila County Narcotics Task Force agents have successfully completed this summer.
In April, agents busted growing operations in Globe. In June, two other gardens at Webber Creek -- 2 miles from the Boy Scout Camp -- and the Waller raid in See Canyon were closed.
Agents also raided gardens in Horton Creek and Chase Creek.
In all, agents arrested 13 Mexican nationals, and charged them with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, which carries a penalty of a minimum of 10 years to life.
Agents added that ridding national forests of pot growers will have a positive environmental effect.
"(Pot growers) are very messy, leave their trash laying around, cut down old growth trees and lay plastic irrigation pipes around," an agent said. "They have no concern for the forests."
The busts this summer began with citizens' tips -- usually from hikers who accidentally stumbled upon the illegal growing operations.
"Those tips we receive are so very important to us," an agent said. "We are very thankful to the public for supplying them to us."
Gila County Sheriff John Armer, however, has issued a warning for hikers to exercise care when they come across a garden.
"Be cautious and vigilant out there," he said. "If you happen to stumble on a (garden), remove yourself immediately, avoid any contact with those tending these gardens and report them to authorities."
Reports can be given the task force by calling (928) 474-0728.
See related stories:
Hikers urged to stay aware, be cautious (Aug. 23)
Forest raids net 100,000 pot plants (Aug. 19)
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