Fields of dope went up in smoke and nine Mexican nationals suspected of tending the illegal gardens were arrested during two raids conducted by local drug agents.
The raids were executed in the early morning hours of Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 on the gardens located near Cherry Creek south of Young in the Sierra Anchas mountain range.
At the first garden, law enforcement officers located 1,759 mature marijuana plants from six to eight feet in height.
"They (the plants) were in rows like a Christmas tree farm," an undercover agent said.
During the raid, a Department of Public Safety Ranger helicopter, along for support, surveillance and transportation spotted a second marijuana field nearby.
The following day, law enforcement officers repositioned themselves and made a second raid, finding 5,266 plants.
"We knew the second field was there but we hadn't located it until the DPS helicopter spotted it," said a Gila County Narcotics Task Force agent.
Law enforcement officers said the pot could have a street value of more than $7 million depending on where and when the marijuana is bought and sold.
During the course of the two operations, agents arrested nine men believed to be involved in growing the marijuana.
Four of the suspects were arrested along Highway 188, as they attempted to escape.
Agents said they could not release the names of the Mexican nationals arrested until the investigation wraps up. However, agents confirmed the nine were illegal immigrants.
Agents believe those apprehended were worker bees only and the operation was being conducted to benefit the Mexican drug cartels.
According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor penned by Danna Karman, Mexican drug cartels have overtaken Columbian drug traders as the kingpins of world drug traffic.
In the past few years, remote areas in both the Tonto and Coconino National Forests have become hot spots for growing pot.
In 2006, more than 104,000 pounds of marijuana plants with a street value of $52 million-plus were eradicated, following 21 raids conducted on National Forest lands near Payson.
In 2005, agents say 110,939 marijuana plants were eradicated, with a street value of more than $200 million.
Charges to be filed
The suspects captured in the most recent raid are currently being held in Gila County Jail in Globe and could be charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years to life in prison.
But before the nine suspects have their preliminary hearings, jurisdiction must be decided.
In arrests made during drug raids over the course of the past three years, the federal government has prosecuted the accused.
However, Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores was not in her office late this week to confirm whether she or the federal government would handle prosecution.
The case was heard by a Gila County grand jury Sept. 5, but the results have not been released.
Gila County Sheriff John Armer said that even if Gila County prosecutes the accused, that does not preclude the federal government filing charges of its own.
"The feds have an interest in this and have actively been involved all along," he said.
In August of 2006, Oscar Nunez-Medina, 41, arrested the previous summer after he was discovered tending a garden that contained from that 19,000 plants, agreed to a plea agreement and was sentenced in U.S. Federal Court to 120 months in prison.
Four others arrested along with Nunez-Medina received similar sentences after agreeing to plea bargains.
Agents would not confirm how the first marijuana garden was located, saying only it was by "advanced surveillance techniques."
At the gardens, agents found a gravity-fed irrigation system transporting water from nearby creeks and springs.
They also found two camps very similar to those discovered at other illegal growing sites, the past few years.
"They have food, sleeping bags, a tent and gardening tools," a GCNTF agent said.
The only firearm found at either of the sites raided was a pellet gun.
Five GCNTF agents, a DPS Special Operations Unit (SWAT), Gila County Sheriff's Office deputies, DEA officers and U. S Forest Service personnel carried out the raid.
GCNTF agents say they expect to find even more marijuana gardens in the near future and they are urging hikers and others using the National Forests to be extremely cautious in the wildlands. Anyone finding a suspected marijuana garden should report it to the GCNTF by calling (928) 474-0728.