One of the men arrested by the Payson-based Gila County Drug Task Force during an August 2005 raid on a marijuana growing operation near Strawberry was sentenced Friday to 120 months in jail.
"Not only are they growing illegal drugs, they present a danger to hikers and the environmental damage they cause is tremendous," an agent said. "These operations are a definite threat to the public."
Oscar Nunez-Medina, 41, was arrested last summer after he was discovered tending a garden that contained more than 19,000 plants with a street value of $30 million.
Following a plea-agreement, he was sentenced July 28 in Federal Court by Judge James A. Teilborg.
United States Attorney District of Arizona public affairs officer Ann Harwood said Nunez-Medina would likely serve his sentence in one of three Federal Correctional Institutions in Arizona -- in West Phoenix, Tucson or in a minimum security prison in Safford.
Three others arrested with Nunez-Medina -- Jesus Castillo-Malendrez, 31, Gerardo Manzo-Pulidgo, 19, and David Valenza-Gonzalez, 28 -- await sentencing. All are residents of Mexico.
The raid on Calf Pen Canyon was one of seven that drug agents conducted last summer on illegal growing operations in Gila and Coconino counties.
This summer they have stormed growing fields near Horton Creek and Camp Geronimo, eradicating over 9,000 plants with a street value of more than $9 million.
Agents say they expect to do more raids this summer and fall.
This year's investigations and raids have been a cooperative effort of the GCNTF, Dept. of Public Safety, Gila County Sheriff's Office, U.S. Forest Service, DEA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The raids usually take place with the help of a DPS Ranger helicopter and a SWAT team.
Gila County Sheriff John Armer said the investigations and arrests demonstrate "the success of the federal grant programs that provide funding for federal and state task forces."
DEA Special Agent in Charge Tim Landrum said international drug traffickers exploit America's own back yards to cultivate thousands of marijuana plants, hoping to line their pockets with millions in drug profits.
"Our eradication means that tons of marijuana never made it to our neighborhoods and millions of dirty dollars never made it into the drug trade," he said.
Local GCNTF agents have said they believe those tending the gardens are worker bees only and the Mexican drug cartel is behind the illegal drug trade.
Agents believe that some of those overseeing the gardens are often working off debts, usually to coyotes who have brought them, or their families, into the United States illegally.
-- To reach Max Foster call 474-5251 ext. 114 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.