By MIKE MORRIS
Nearly 3,000 marijuana plants growing on 2 acres of public land near a popular recreational area were seized during a raid yesterday morning.
An irrigation system, tents and sleeping bags were found at the site, within 2 miles of Natural Bridges, a hiking trail and swimming hole off Parrotts Ferry Road south of Vallecito.
Calaveras Narcotics Enforcement Unit agents said they believe two people ran away from the marijuana garden when the raid began and were hiding in the surrounding hills. No arrests were made. Another Calaveras County raid at a different site is scheduled for today.
Eddie Ballard, head of the CNEU, said anywhere from two to eight people associated with the Mexican National Drug Organization were involved with the upkeep of the "very sophisticated" site.
The MNDO sets up marijuana cultivation sites in remote areas throughout the country, he said. Migrant workers grow and maintain the plants, which are shipped to dealers once they mature, netting thousands of dollars, Ballard said.
"Usually these are large-scale operations that produce anywhere from 1,000 to 20,000 plants," he said.
At first count yesterday afternoon, the raid had yielded 2,709 plants. CNEU and personnel from several other law enforcement agencies who raided the plantation expected anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 1- to 3-foot-tall plants after observing the area from a National Guard helicopter about a month ago.
"You just get lucky," Ballard said after seeing the plants. He said many growers, including those who were running the Vallecito camp, use canopies and other types of plants to hide the pot.
The bust comes just two days after more than 18,500 4-foot-tall marijuana plants were uprooted from Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County.
Both raids included members of the statewide Campaign Against Marijuana Planting program. Yesterday, six CAMP agents were assisted by six Calaveras County Sheriff's deputies.