Wednesday, Sep 7, 2011
Federal, state, and local law enforcement agents secured and eliminated a suspected marijuana growing operation in the park’s backcountry early on Thursday, September 1st. The coordinated efforts of a National Park Service SETT, DEA, the New Mexico State Police SWAT, the New Mexico National Guard, the Santa Fe National Forest, the Bernalillo and Sandoval County’s Sheriff Offices and the Los Alamos Police and Fire Departments led to the netting of more than 9,000 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of more than $9 million. The early morning raid was conducted in a remote area of the monument guarded by steep terrain with soil and rocks loosened by the recent Las Conchas Fire. No one was captured as a part of the operation, but investigators saw at least two men at the grow site earlier in the week. While no arrests have yet been made, three sophisticated marijuana grow sites were located near each other. The grow site was located in a burned area of the park. Park officials said the investigation into the illegal growing operation will continue after all the marijuana plants are eradicated. Operations at the site are expected to continue for several days. Officials at the operations center managing the raid had been planning for Thursday’s operation for about a week. The marijuana grow operation was first detected on August 23rd during an overflight of the area meant to determine the damage to the park’s resources from recent floods associated with the Las Conchas Fire. That flooding was caused when monsoonal rains fell on the fire ravaged terrain of the national park. This is the first marijuana grow operation detected in Bandelier and a DEA official onsite said such grow operations have been rare in New Mexico. Superintendent Jason Lott said that the successful drug raid was a learning experience for all of the park’s staff. “The safety of all the members of this interagency task force, the park staff and the public has been our paramount concern before, during and throughout this operation,” said Lott. “Now that we are aware of how these illegal growing operations are conducted we will be even more vigilant in our efforts to make sure we don’t have other such illegal activities in the park again.” Lott credited Tom Betts, the park’s chief ranger, for his quick response and collaborative planning with the different federal, state and local agencies involved for the success of the operation. Specially trained law enforcement and military personnel took part in the raid and will remain on scene until all of the evidence is collected and transported out of the remote grow site. “This was a precise tactical maneuver and working with this group of professionals has been a pleasure and a privilege,” said Betts. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and the New Mexico National Guard both lent helicopters to the operation and a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter airlifted the suspected drugs out. Most of the marijuana was transported to an undisclosed location for proper disposal. Some was retained for testing as evidence. In addition to the contraband, investigators on site located temporary housing structures, trash, food caches, and irrigation supplies. Those items and other evidence are being processed and the investigation is expected to continue for several weeks.