1,656 Marijuana Plants Found In Raid

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The Gila County Narcotics Task Force is turning up the heat on those who illegally grow and harvest marijuana in Arizona's national forests.

The task force's most recent battle was waged July 12, north of Highway 260 near Preacher's Canyon, where agents raided an illegal garden.

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Last year, more than 104,000 pounds of pot with a street value of $52,307,205 were collected during raids in area national forests.

There, they eradicated 1,656 marijuana plants, but did not apprehend the two tenders, believed to be Mexican nationals.

In past years, it was tips from citizens, usually hikers who accidentally stumbled on growing operations, which led agents to gardens.

The Preacher Canyon site, however, was discovered using "advanced investigative techniques," said agents who asked not to be identified.

Task force officers would not comment further, saying any information could hinder future investigations.

The Preacher Canyon garden was kept under surveillance for about a week and a half before the raid was carried out.

That is a common practice in law enforcement, mostly because officers hope that by observing they can learn the identity of others associated with the operation.

"We want 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 have long suspected that those tending the gardens are only worker bees and the plants are possibly being grown to benefit a Mexican drug cartel.

Following the raid at Preacher Canyon, agents said they did not know why the growers abandoned the garden, but suspected the two might have had difficulty finding a suitable irrigation source.

"The plants were all fairly small," an agent said.

During the raid, agents found a camp very similar to those they uncover on most raids.

The camps have tents, sleeping bags, food supplies and small stoves.

The agents, however, did not find any firearms, as they have at other gardens. The raid was the first of the summer for the GCNTF, but agents anticipate many more will be carried out, as the growing season wears on.

Last year, more than 104,000 pounds of pot with a street value of $52,307,205 went up in smoke after GCNTF, Department of Public Safety and Gila County Sheriff's Department officers conducted 21 raids in Tonto and Coconino National Forests.

Because the growers represent a threat to public safety, agents have issued a warning to hikers and others who might accidentally discover a garden.

Their best advice is to plot the location, using a GPS if possible, and to leave the area as soon as possible.

The marijuana garden should then be reported to the task force by calling (928) 474-0728.

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