A common thread running through testimony given by 17 suspects arrested for illegal cultivation of marijuana in the Tonto National Forest is that they are working off smuggling debts.
"That's what they tell us, they are trying to pay off debts for being smuggled across the border," a Payson-based Gila County Narcotics Task Force agent said.
"Some are taken out of stash houses and sent into the forests to work the (marijuana) grows."
A handful of those arrested have told drug agents they were approached on the street, often in the metropolitan Valley area or other states, to work the illegal gardens.
Of those arrested in five spring and summer raids, 15 are listed in police reports and court records as "Mexican citizens." One is a U.S. citizen and the other is a Mexican citizen who is also a legal, permanent resident of the United States.
Since the task force began eradication efforts in 2003, local agents have suspected those tending the forest gardens are worker bees being supported and supplied by Mexican drug traffickers and cartels.
The task force's focus has been to find more than just the gardeners, who have been placed into a type of indentured servitude.
Agents have discovered, however, that those responsible are smart enough to distance themselves from the grow, but they are still working their way up the chain to find those in charge.
A Payson GCNTF agent said the workers are dropped off at remote national forest locations, usually where there is a water supply, with orders to grow and tend the gardens.
"They are then re-supplied with irrigation materials and food," an agent said.
Law enforcement officers believe the supply routes run through Maricopa County into the Tonto National Forest.
Illegal growing operations were raided this summer near Maple Springs, Pigeon Springs Springs, Promontory Butte, See Springs, Gold Canyon and Hinton Canyons.
The worker camps discovered during the raids are most often Spartan in nature and all very similar.
"They usually have a makeshift tent or shelter covered by brush, a small stove and a bag of food supplies," an agent said.
Locating the pot gardens is the biggest challenge the task force faces and it is citizens' tips that can often lead to finding a grow.
"We need those, but we also have aerial surveillance from helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, as well as other advanced investigative techniques," an agent said.
In the five raids conducted this summer, 25,000 marijuana plants, some seven feet in height, were destroyed.
"The operations have been highly successful in reducing the number of plants grown on national forest lands in Arizona," said U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Robin Pogue.
Roger Vanderpool, the Director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, believes the successful eradications "will keep Arizonans safe and will impact the flow of illegal drugs, not just within the state but throughout the country."
All 18 suspects identified this past summer have been charged with various counts of "Conspiracy to Cultivate 1,000 or more Marijuana Plants on National Forest Lands," which is punishable by 10 years to life in prison and fines ranging from $250,000 to $4 million.
Charges were also filed against Filiberto Franco Chavez, 28, and Rigoberto Mendoza-Guesar, 50, for "Possession of a Firearm During and in Relation to a Controlled Substance Offense."
While agents have often warned hikers, hunters and outdoorsmen that the garden tenders can be armed and dangerous, gunplay has erupted only once.
That occurred in September 2005 when bear hunters accidentally stumbled across a grow and one of the men found himself face-to-face with a garden tender.
The hunter backtracked, but not before three to five shots were fired at him.
The hunter and his three partners decided on a show of force and fired 20 to 25 shots in the direction the suspect had been seen.
No one was hit.
Other federal charges filed Thursday in Phoenix by the U.S. Attorney's Office were "Possession of Marijuana Plants with Intent to Distribute" against Jesus Hernandez Ley, 30, Martinez Martinez Coss, 34, and Victorino Penalza Cardenas, 29.
While 17 suspects, ranging in age from 21 to 51 years, are in custody, one remains at large.
In a raid conducted Oct. 3, agents apprehended a teenager who is believed to be the son of Mendoza-Guesar.
U.S. Attorney Daniel Knauss attributes the success of the eradication efforts during the past four years to "the highest levels of cooperation from federal, state and local officials."
Payson's two GCNTF members agree, saying it is the cooperation of the Gila County Sheriff's Office, Department of Public Safety, U.S. Forest Service, DEA and City of Phoenix police department that allows them to conduct successful eradication efforts.
In the past four years, the task force has eradicated more than 30 illegal marijuana farms and 200,000-plus plants in the Gila County area.