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The discovery and removal of three huge marijuana fields growing on remote tribal land near Satus Pass has been pegged as one of the biggest drug busts in recent memory.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration announced Tuesday more than 65,000 plants, many as tall as seven feet in height, were harvested early by authorities - uprooted from the ground, piled into cargo nets and flown out from the woods by helicopter over the past six days.
The value of the operation was estimated at $35 million. At the going rate of $1,000 per plant, that figure could be conservative.
As big as the seizure was, the only arrests so far have been three Mexican nationals who were being paid $100 a day to tend the fields. Mel Rodriguez, resident agent in charge of the DEA in Yakima, said he anticipates more arrests.
"The guys we got so far, they were basically gardeners," he said. "They've been cooperating with us."
Rodriguez said the first field, consisting of about 29,000 plants, was spotted early last week by agents who were checking the area where a smaller marijuana operation was found last summer.
After authorities moved in and began eradicating the first field, they discovered two more fields totaling about 40,000 plants. The fields were located within a few miles of Highway 97 at Satus Pass, just across the Klickitat County line.
Rodriguez said all three fields were part of a single operation. They had elaborate irrigation systems, with each plant enjoying its own drip line. Trees had been thinned for sunlight.
The men who were arrested are expected to appear before a federal magistrate today in Yakima. All three are from the state of Jalisco in central Mexico.
In addition to drug trafficking charges, the suspects are also being detained on immigration holds.
Rodriguez said the plants were maturing fast but not fully grown. They would normally be harvested surreptitiously around the first freeze of the year, usually in October.
Authorities last year seized a smaller growing operation near Satus Pass of about 15,000 plants. The total haul last year countywide was estimated at about 30,000 plants, not counting indoor operations.
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