What began three years ago when wildlife technicians on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in San Carlos, Arizona stumbled across a remote location on tribal land has become a successful drug bust.
The technicians were out doing a frog study when they stumbled upon suspicious items and noticed non-Indians in the area. The technicians thought the group was stealing Native American artifacts but when tribal game rangers, who are certified law enforcement officers, stepped in, they realized they had pot growers not pot stealers.
Investigators estimate the marijuana farm, with a sophisticated watering system, may have been hidden for as long as 20 years on the vast 1.8 million acre reservation in southeastern Arizona.
“There’s a worn trail. There were old wood structures and posts for fences. There was stuff in there that looked pretty old. They usually look for a spring and start building a watering system (around it). They built a homemade type of water storage (to catch rain water), which they lined with plastic to keep the water from evaporating. They even had solar panels,” said Tim Stevens, San Carlos Apache Tribe Recreation and Wildlife Department. “The (suspects) were in there quite a bit. Someone dropped them off and paid them to cultivate it for them.”
At the time of the discovery, there were no illegal plants to be found and Arizona’s drought could have prevented consistent harvesting. Surveillance was set up and it paid off this past spring when rangers noticed activity at the site. On August 9, after waiting for the four-month growing cycle, investigators confiscated 106 full-grown plants with a street value of $160,000 and about $2,000 in equipment. Investigators say the crop might have been larger had it not been for the drought.
In the past pot farmers may have gotten away with their operations on Indian land due to their ability to hide in uninhabited areas. While lack of funding to adequately patrol remote areas has been an issue, rangers hope this bust sends a strong message.
“I think there’s the perception that tribal law enforcement is not adequately trained or equipped. We do have resources that are pretty effective and we’ve been teaming up with other agencies from the county, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and state agencies,” Stevens said. He says all game rangers and others who assisted in the investigation deserve much credit for their efforts.
While this is the largest drug bust on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, it isn’t the largest in Indian country. Two years ago, law enforcement officers discovered several large marijuana plantations on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon, which would have fetched $10 million on the street. The pot was tied to drug gangs in Mexico, who are finding ways to avoid tightened security at the border. Tribal law enforcement officers say this type of criminal activity on Indian lands is growing at an alarming rate. Aside from Indian reservations, Mexican drug gangs are also targeting U.S. Forest Service land.
San Carlos investigators do not believe their suspects, who have not been charged as the investigation is ongoing, are tied to a drug gang in Mexico. Still, they warn local residents to be careful.
“We have these types of things going on here that people don’t know about. A lot of these people are pretty dangerous people. (Hunters, campers or hikers) could stumble upon this and won’t know what it is. It’s a business, a profit-making endeavor. These people have invested financially. The thing about this site, they put a lot of work into it. The landscape was modified, equipment taken in and someone will probably want to protect it,” said an investigator who wished to remain anonymous. Tribal game rangers say it’s not unusual for drug dealers to booby trap their pot farms or hire people to protect them. “If anyone ever comes across anything that doesn’t look right, just back out and report it,” added Stevens.
The damage caused by these types of operations will take time to repair. “There’s damage to the spring and the vegetation. They used chemicals in the system and it would seep into ground water, so they altered the natural state and contaminated the natural systems. On top of that, there’s damage to (what appears to be an) archaeological site. There’s pottery shards and grinding stones (in the area),” said Stevens.
Tribal game rangers say while the number of plants seized is much smaller than what was seized in Oregon, any drug confiscation is considered significant in the war on drugs.