More than 104,000 pounds of marijuana plants with a street value of $52,307,205 went up in smoke this past summer thanks to the efforts of the Gila County Narcotics Task Force, Department of Public Safety and several other law enforcement agencies.
The pot was discovered and destroyed during 21 raids that were conducted around the Rim Country during the past six months.
A GCNTF agent, who asked to remain anonymous, said all of the marijuana gardens raided were very similar.
"Usually they were tended by two, three or four of what we believe to be Mexican nationals and the gardens were located in secluded areas where water sources were nearby," he said. "We also found sophisticated irrigation where plastic pipe and drip systems were used."
Near most all of the gardens, agents also found campsites where tenders lived while the plants matured.
Some camps had tents, sleeping bags, food supplies and small stoves. Bags of fertilizers used to enhance the pot plants' growth were also discovered.
As the raids continued throughout the summer, agents found them becoming routine.
"It was like ‘ditto' for us, nothing much different in what we found at any of them," the agent said.
After each raid, agents carefully counted the plants before they were destroyed. In all, 104,651 plants were eradicated.
Tips from citizens, usually hikers who accidentally stumbled on the illegal growing operations, sometime led agents to the gardens.
During midsummer, however, agents said they were discovering the gardens using "advanced investigative techniques." Drug agents could not comment further, saying any information given out could hinder future investigations.
With the onset of the fall season in the Rim Country, agents do not anticipate they will find or raid any more gardens this year.
"We don't expect to, but you never know," an agent said.
The last raid was Sept. 20 in Hell's Gate Wilderness area.
Big pot bust
The largest garden eradicated, over 30,000 plants strewn out over a half-mile area, was found in May east of the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery. Agents opted not to raid it until July 29 choosing 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."
Agents say their goal during the summer was to find more than just the gardeners who they suspect were smuggled across the border and kept in a type of indentured servitude by Mexican drug cartels.
"(The growers) are worker bees only," a GCNTF agent said.
Those people responsible for the gardens are wily enough to distance themselves from the growers, agents say.
Although law enforcements tried to pinpoint escape routes and trails during the Tonto Creek site surveillance, none of the three suspects were captured during the raid.
Eradication of the plants, some of which were seven feet tall, began 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. Among those who visited was the Payson Roundup's staff photographer Jason Pettifield.
During a July 10 raid near Boy Scout Camp Geronimo northeast of Payson, agents captured two suspects.
The two, Jesus Mejia, 25, and his brother Gabriel Mejia, 19, were arrested, interviewed and booked into the Payson Gila County Jail.
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.
The pair are currently being held in the Gila County Jail in Globe.
-- To reach Max Foster call 474-5251 ext. 114 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.