More than 4,900 mature marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $5.43 million were destroyed by drug agents Sept. 9 following a raid on a cultivation site located near Horton Creek in the Tonto National Forest.
No arrests were made, but the investigation is continuing.
Agents are unsure how many persons, most believed to be Mexican nationals, were overseeing the garden, but indicate there were multiple suspects.
Law enforcement officers found the garden site, which was almost identical to the ones discovered in 21 raids over the past four years.
“It was typical,” said a Payson-based Gila County Gang, Violent Crime and Drug Force agent. “There was a makeshift tent covering elevated beds made of wood chips, a cooking area, bag of food supplies and a work station where the plants were dried.”
Ironically, a St. Jude candle was found as were other religious artifacts discovered in earlier raids.
St. Jude is regarded as the patron saint of desperate causes and is also the patron saint of the Chicago Police Department.
Agents also found 15-plus pounds of processed and dried marijuana buds ready to be shipped and sold.
Agents believe the garden was probably planted in May and would have been fully harvested by the end of this month.
Most of the gardens raided in the past have consisted of a series of small plots scattered randomly in the towering pine forest.
This one, however, was unusual in that it consisted of two or three large plots over running hills.
To grow the gardens, tenders decimated the forest in a manner never before seen by the most veteran of drug agents.
Officers estimate that for the five- to seven-acre garden, growers cut down 50 to 100 ponderosa pine trees some 70 to 90 feet tall with trunks in excess of 20 inches.
“Then they spray painted the trunks green hoping the cuts couldn’t be seen from the air,” an agent said.
Law enforcement officers also found discarded fertilizer bags, black plastic tubing used in gravity fed watering systems and Styrofoam cups apparently used for drinking from the creek.
“They destroyed a big chunk of the forest,” the Payson agent said.
Another agent along on the raid said the plants’ tenders showed absolutely no regard for the national forest or the environment.
Officers have learned from past raids that plant tenders often live at the site the entire growing season and are periodically re-supplied with food and other necessities.
Tenders are often found to be Mexican drug cartel worker-bees toiling to pay off human smuggling debts.
Last weekend’s raid was conducted in the early morning hours by a multi agency task force including a DPS Ranger helicopter. The operation was prompted by a citizen’s tip of unusual activity in the area.
Along on the raid were officers from the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, Gila County Task Force, Arizona Department of Public Safety, United States Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Forest Service, Navajo County MCAT Task Force, Payson Police Department and the Miami Police Department.