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BANDELIER – A Blackhawk helicopter used large baskets attached to long ropes to haul out 9,000 marijuana plants found growing in rugged terrain deep inside Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier National Monument Thursday.
Authorities discovered the clandestine crop while conducting a flood survey of the area by helicopter following a heavy rainfall on Aug. 23. Officials launched the raid on the marijuana field at 4:40 a.m. Thursday and had dismantled the sophisticated operation by nightfall.
The marijuana was taken to an undisclosed location and burned.
“We did not expect this in Bandelier and we did not expect this to be an issue for Bandelier,” said Bandelier Superintendent Jason Lott as he looked down into the canyon where the pot farm was secluded. “We are going to fix this and keep Bandelier safe.”
Lott described the plants as measuring between six and 10 feet in height, growing in three separate areas of the canyon. Initially, Lott said there were 5,000 plants, but Friday morning, he revised his estimate to 9,000 plants with an estimated street value of $9 million.
“We were not looking for it,” Lott said. “This was a near-perfect operation in the way it was executed. There were no injuries. We cleared the sites and the credit really goes to our chief ranger Tom Betz who put together this interagency task force of experts.”
The task force included the National Park Service, Special Events and Tactic Team, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), New Mexico State Police SWAT, New Mexico National Guard, Santa Fe National Forest, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and the Los Alamos Police and Fire Departments. The Special Events and Tactic Team was made up of park personnel from eight different states
LAFD bomb experts initially combed the terrain for booby traps. None were found, Lott said, so 35 interagency law enforcement officers converged on the scene to take down the extensive marijuana growing operation.
LAPD set up an incident command post on N.M. 4 between mile markers 44 and 45. They scoured the area on ATVs and by foot in search of suspects.
During the interagency effort, officers collected evidence, gathered material, hauled away food and trucks and cleared the site. Several dump trucks were loaded with evidence and hauled that away for processing at an undisclosed location. Three small structures were built on the pot farm in which officials believe the operation’s caretakers were sheltered. Lott also said there was an extensive irrigation system that used water from Frijoles Canyon creek.
No arrests were made during the raid and at least two suspects remain at large, Lott said, adding that the investigation will likely reveal whether the operation was connected to the Mexican drug cartels.
“I am glad we saw this in the air rather than having walked in on it,” Lott said. “Their operation was very intricate and sophisticated. They were camping there and they were likely armed.”
Lott also said the Las Conchas Fire came close to the marijuana fields.
“There was a black line around the fields,” Lott said. “They likely were fighting it. One of their structures was burned.”
John Severance contributed to this story.