Gila County Narcotics Task Force agents expected to find another pot garden in the latest raid in the Tonto National Forest. What they didn’t expect was the stacks of marijuana dried, processed, packaged and ready for transportation and distribution.
Normally the task force officers find plants still growing and in different stages depending on when the raid is made.
When drug agents conducted an eradication raid Sept. 18 about 10 miles south of Young near Cherry Creek, they found about 30 pounds of marijuana bundled and ready
to be shipped.
“It could have gone out that day,” a Payson-based GCNTF agent said.
Although the growing site was tended by what are believed to be Mexican nationals, they fled on foot and have not yet been captured tured.
Agents will not reveal how many growers were looking after the site, saying the information is confidential because the investigation is ongoing. Most often at least two workers look after the plants, but in back-to-back raids conducted in Sept. 2007 near the same Cherry Creek area, agents arrested nine men who were charged with conspiracy to grow marijuana.
At the two sites raided last year, agents found a total of 7,025 plants from six to eight feet in height.
Agents found 4,911 plants from seven to eight feet on the most recent raid.
“They could have been planted in either April or May,” an agent said.
Law enforcement officers say the pot has a street value of $7 million, depending on where it is bought and sold.
Drug agents are tight-lipped and decline to reveal how they found the remote garden, but in past, citizens’ tips have led to the discoveries of marijuana farms. Aerial surveillance has also led to some gardens.
“We also use advanced investigative techniques,” the Payson agent said.
The campsite where the garden tenders holed-up was very similar to the ones agents found in 21 raids conducted over the past four years.
The areas generally include a makeshift tent or shelter covered by brush, a small stove and a bag of food supplies.
During the growing season, the tenders are periodically re-supplied with food and other necessities. In past years, officers have kept the gardens under surveillance in hopes of catching those who make re-supply runs.
In the fight against the illegal gardens, the tenders are often considered Mexican drug cartel worker-bees and many have been found to be working off human smuggling debts.
GCNTF officers declined to say if they found any firearms at the camp.
Gunfire has been exchange twice. The first time was in September 2005 when bear hunters accidentally stumbled across a site 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.
About one year later, during a marijuana eradication operation in the Tonto National Forest, law enforcement officers encountered four armed men, one who pointed a rifle at an officer.
The officer fired at the suspect three times, hitting him at least once.
The other three suspects fled into the forest, but were later captured.
Conducting last week’s raid were GCNTF officers, including three from Payson, and United State Forest Service agents in conjunction with the Payson Police Department, Gila County Sheriff’s Office and the DEA.
A DPS Ranger helicopter also assisted.