Drug agents have raided one of the largest marijuana operations ever discovered in Gila County.
The garden, located east of Payson and about a half mile east of the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, contained about 30,000 plants spread out over a half-mile area.
The raid on the illegal operation occurred July 29 but law enforcement officers didn't begin eradication of the plants, some of which were seven feet tall, until Aug. 3.
The garden was kept intact to allow other law enforcement officers, state officials and the media an opportunity to visit the site and see the garden firsthand. Also, local officers from the Gila County Narcotics Task Force and Department of Public Safety used the garden as a training device, flying over the site several times in an effort to learn more about what to look for when searching for other gardens.
"(The garden) gave us an opportunity to learn more about aerial observation," a Payson-based GCNTF agent said.
The garden near the fish hatchery was difficult to see from the air because it was growing under a canopy of trees and ferns that rendered it almost invisible from above.
The garden was first discovered in May by a hiker who reported its location to authorities.
But, law enforcement authorities did not raid the garden for about three months, opting instead to keep it under observation.
"We wanted to see if we could catch someone a little higher up the food chain," an agent said. "Maybe (we'd catch) the ones that were bringing in the food and supplies (to the growers) or be able to identify the vehicle they were using."
Since last year, GCNTF agents have said the men tending the gardens, most often Mexican nationals, are worker bees only and the Mexican drug cartel is behind the illegal growing operations.
From surveillance reports done on the garden, agents believe three men were tending the garden and were probably from Mexico.
Although agents tried to pinpoint escape routes and trails during surveillance, none of the three suspects were captured during the raid.
"It's extremely tough to catch those guys in that type of terrain," an agent said.
Agents did find a camp, laden with food supplies and gear, where the growers were living while cultivating the marijuana.
The garden and camp was very much like all the others we've found the past two years," an agent said.
The raid was the third executed this summer on marijuana gardens.
The first occurred July 11 near Camp Geronimo where agents found 8,000 plants growing were able to corral two suspects trying to flee.
The two -- Jesus Mejia, 25, and his brother Gabriel Mejia, 19 -- were charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and possession of marijuana. Agents say neither spoke English and both were Mexican nationals in the country illegally.
The other raid, in which 1,100 plants were found, occurred July 26 near Horton Creek at the base of the Mogollon Rim. No suspects were captured.
Agents say they expect to find even more gardens this summer and fall. Participating in this summer's raids have been officers from Department of Public Safety, Gila County Sheriff's Office, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Gila County Attorney's Office, DEA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish and the GCNTF. A DPS Ranger helicopter also has been used.
-- To reach Max Foster call 474-5251 ext. 114 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.