Police Nab Pot Tender

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A Mexican national faces 10 years in prison and a $250,000 to $4 million fine for his part in an illegal marijuana garden found south of Young.

Jose Luis Hurgado-Villa, 47, is expected to be charged with “Conspiracy to cultivate 1,000 or more marijuana plants on National Forest lands” after being captured Sept. 25 by agents representing the Gila County Narcotics Task Force and the U.S. Forest Service.

The suspect is being held in Gila County jail.

In the raid, officers swooped down on a very unsuspecting Hurgado-Villa.

“We found him carrying plants from the garden to be dried and processed,” a Payson-based GCNTF agent said. “He did not resist.”

Much to the relief of the agents, he was not armed, as some of those previously arrested have been.

Agents refused to reveal whether or not the suspect provided information about the illegal pot garden and its connection to Mexican drug cartels.

“We can’t reveal that, it’s an ongoing investigation,” the agent said.

At the garden, law enforcement officers discovered more than 1,200 mature plants growing 6 to 7 feet in height, and 200 pounds of marijuana processed and ready to be shipped.

“We also found marijuana on drying beds, on clothes lines and in large, plastic sacks,” the agent said.

Officers also discovered a gravity-fed gravity-fed plastic pipe watering system and a makeshift camp consisting of a tent, small stove and food supplies.

“It (the site) was ‘ditto’ — much like all the others we have found,” the agent said.

The pot plants were eradicated at the site.

While most gardens the GCNTF has raided over the past several years have had at least two tenders, sometimes more, agents are not certain if Hurgado-Villa had an accomplice.

“There may have been one other,” the Payson agent said.

The growing operation was very similar to one found during a Sept. 18 raid, also south of Young.

There, agents found about 30 pounds of marijuana bundled and ready to be shipped, and 4,911 plants seven to eight feet in height.

“The two gardens were two to four miles apart as the crow flies,” the GCNTF agent said.

No arrests were made during that operation.

Law enforcement officers say the street value of the pot destroyed during the two raids is difficult to pinpoint because it depends on where it is bought and sold. But both gardens have an estimated value of $12 million.

Over the past four years, the Gila County Narcotics Task Force, the National Forest Service and other law enforcement agencies have eradicated more than 30 illegal marijuana farms and 200,000 plants in the Gila County area.

Among the most productive years was 2006, when 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.

Last summer, the drug agents conducted a raid on a marijuana field found in the South Deer Creek Springs area. There, agents found 8,000-plus plants. During the raid, agents also arrested of pair of illegal immigrants and a juvenile who were charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana.

One of the most unusual raids occurred in July 2006 when Boy Scouts attending Camp Geronimo north of Payson awoke to see heavily armed SWAT team members parading past their tents.

The officers stormed a marijuana field about one mile northwest of the camp, flushing two growers who attempted to flee on foot.

The pair ran directly into the SWAT team and was arrested without further incident.

Because many of the illegal grows are found by hikers who accidentally stumble upon them, GCNTF agents are asking anyone who finds a garden to remove themselves immediately and try to avoid contact with garden tenders.

The illegal operations should be reported to the GCNTF by calling (928) 474-0728.

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