Law Enforcement Relies On Anonymous Tips To Bust Remote Drug Operations

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The public's vigilance and cooperation continue to support the efforts of local law enforcement agencies to corral illegal drug activity in Rim country.

According to two undercover agents assigned to the Gila County Narcotics Task Force, tips from hikers and others using national forest lands are helping law enforcement curtail illicit drug operations.

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A Gila County Narcotics Task Force undercover agent inventories some of the marijuana plants that were seized during a raid on a remote campsite at the base of the Mogollon Rim June 10. The agent suspects even more illegal growing operations will be found this summer.

"They're out there. We have to find them," one of the agents said. "The information the public gives us is very valuable in locating them."

Central Arizona's thousands of acres of remote forested lands, wilderness and grottos have made this area a popular place among Mexican drug cartels and narcotic manufacturers to set up shop.

Last March, agents uncovered -- thanks to a tip from hikers -- an anhydrous ammonia meth lab located in a rural area just north of Payson.

The drug agents said the lab was the first of its kind they had seen in northern Gila County.

"It's not good that stuff is up here now," one said. "It's a key ingredient in the illegal production of methamphetamines."

After turning the site over to agents from the High Intensity Drug Traffic Area (HIDTA) and the Environmental Protection Agency, the agents breathed a sigh of relief. They said they were glad that adults had found and reported the lab first.

If teens or children had discovered the lab, not knowing of its extreme danger, the agents said the outcome could have been more dire.

"(Anhydrous ammonia) is very toxic, it's a health hazard and can kill if inhaled" the agent said.

Hikers have also supplied tips leading to the raid and destruction two marijuana growing operations.

In April, the task force received information that marijuana was being grown on national forest land north of Globe.

When agents arrived, they found the site abandoned, but about 7,000 plants growing in well-groomed rows. They estimated the crop's street value at $2.5 million.

And just last week, tips led agents to a site north of Camp Geronimo at the base of the Mogollon Rim where they found an illegal marijuana garden of almost 5,000 plants, and a street value of $480,000.

Again, the site was abandoned, which appears to be protocol for Mexican nationals suspected of growing the marijuana.

"When they have any type of human contact or think they have been seen, they get spooked and abandon the camp," the task force agent said.

Growers' camps are usually located away from the fields and at a higher elevation where they can keep an eye on the plants and potential intruders. The agents added that camps and growing fields are in a secluded area near water.

The crops are irrigated with gravity-fed drip systems and sometimes with pumps and generators.

At the site of last week's raid, officers uncovered hundreds of yards of tubing used to irrigate the illegal plants.

Agents said the growers usually tend the marijuana long term.

Last week, agents found a well-stocked kitchen with 50 pounds each of pinto beans, rice, corn maza mix and sleeping quarters at Camp Geronimo.

And some of the growers may be forced into pot-growing servitude.

"They could be working off drug or smuggling debts or possibly could have been kidnapped and set loose to watch over the illegal operations," an agent said. "Some can be dangerous."

Drug agents predict there are other marijuana-growing operations on national forest lands, possibly larger than the two that have been discovered this spring.

The advice from the task force to anyone who might stumble on a marijuana field or other illegal drug operation is to leave the area immediately and plot its location. Immediately notify the task force, at (928) 474-0728 of its whereabouts.

"If they can get GPS coordinates, it really helps," an agent added.

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