Boy Scouts spending the week at Camp Geronimo, north of Payson, awoke Tuesday morning to see heavily armed officers and SWAT team members parading through their camp.
"They were peeking out of their tents," one of the officers said. "I can't imagine what they must have been thinking."
The 40-member law enforcement team, led by the Gila County Narcotics Task Force, U.S. Forest Service officers and Arizona Department of Public Safety, were bound for a secluded site about one mile northwest of the camp where a marijuana field had been discovered. The officers surrounded the camp and eventually flushed out two growers who attempted to flee on foot.
"They ran directly into one of the elements of our SWAT team," a GCNTF undercover agent said. "They didn't resist (arrest) much."
The two, Jesus Mejia, 25, and his brother Gabriel Mejia, 19, were arrested, interviewed and booked into the Payson Gila County Jail where they remain. Both 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.
Scottsdale resident Alston Neal who was camping on Milk Ranch Point with his wife witnessed the raid and subsequent arrests.
"We could see the (marijuana) fields and the command center," he said. "Early in the morning about 15 or 16 vehicles came in and then the helicopter arrived.
"(Officers) did warn us there could be gunfire and to watch for suspicious persons," he said. "We decided to stay.
"When the raid was over, they talked to us and we learned what had happened," Neal said. "It was all very exciting."
The marijuana field originally caught agents attention last winter when a hiker reported seeing what he thought was a potential site. Since then, agents have periodically set up surveillance on the area.
"When we found it was occupied, it was time to go in," an undercover agent said.
The actual growing field, about three acres in size, contained about 8,000 plants that were midway through maturity, and scattered 10 to 15 feet apart. The plants, which agents say had an Arizona street value of over $7 million, were uprooted and flown by helicopter to a burning site. Some plants were kept as evidence.
Also participating in the raid on the camp were officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Arizona Game and Fish Department and Gila County Sheriff's Office.
Last year's raids
Raiding a marijuana-growing field near the highly popular Boy Scout camp was nothing new for drug agents.
In June 2005, a tip from hikers led narcotic agents to a 5,000-plant marijuana field north of the camp at the base of the Mogollon Rim.
Before the agents arrived, the growers fled the area.
"That's the way it usually is. If anyone discovers them, they abandon (the marijuana garden) right away," an undercover GCNTF agent said after the raid.
Last summer and fall, agents conducted seven raids in Tonto and Coconino National Forests in which they eradicated 110,939 marijuana plants with a street value of more that $200 million.
Following the largest raid in August at Calf Pen Canyon near Fossil Creek Wilderness, agents eradicated about 20,000 pot plants, many of which were six feet in height.
Following each of last summer's raid, Gila County Sheriff John Armer issued a warning to hikers and hunters.
"Be cautious and vigilant out there," the sheriff said after a Aug. 15, 2005 incident south of Payson in which illegal growers fired shots at bear hunters who accidentally discovered their growing fields.
"If you happen to stumble on a grow, remove yourself immediately, avoid any contact with those tending these gardens and report them to the authorities," Armer said.
Anyone finding a suspected marijuana garden should report it by calling (928) 474-0728.
See Related Story: Marijuana linked to Mexican drug traffickers