69 marijuana plants confiscated during 'Flying high'

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

FARMINGTON, August 30, 2012

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(Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: A Navajo Nation police officer with the Drug and Gang Task Force walks with a marijuana plant in hand for evidence as a New Mexico National Guard helicopter flies overhead during Operation Flying High on Aug. 23 in Upper Fruitland, NM.

BOTTOM: Two undercover Navajo police officers with the Gang and Drug Task Force cautiously enter a home with their weapons drawn on Aug. 23 after detaining three people who were caught attempting to destroy marijuana plants during Operation Flying High in the Upper Fruitland, N.M. area.

T he Navajo police went high tech on Thursday when they partnered with the New Mexico National Guard to catch people on the Navajo reservation who were growing marijuana plants illegally.

For the first time, tribal drug enforcement officers used National Guard helicopters to fly over areas of the reservation to look for marijuana plants and in one case, discovered marijuana growers trying to hide their plants from the helicopter.

Gilbert Yazzie, head of the Navajo Nation Police Department's drug and gang enforcement unit, said the venture dubbed "Flying High" was a complete success with officers confiscating 69 marijuana plants located at three separate locations.

There have been no arrests so far but Yazzie said Shiprock police drug enforcement officers are currently continuing the investigation and charges may be filed against certain individuals in the near future.

"This was very effective," said Yazzie.

Col. Mike Montoya, a public information officer with the New Mexico National Guard, said the Guard has been conducting these types of marijuana surveillance operations for more than 10 years, mostly at the end of summer when the marijuana plants are at their highest and therefore are the easiest to spot.

Two helicopters were provided and local law enforcement officers were used as spotters since they know the territory, Montgomery said.

Yazzie said the tribe only got the two helicopters for one day so they used them to fly over areas around the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry south of Farmington and then around Crownpoint, N.M. and Pueblo Pintado, N.M.

While there were officers up in the air, there were also drug officers on the ground going to the areas where the plants were sighted.

Yazzie said it wasn't hard to find the plants since they are a distinctive green in color and grow to as high as eight feet.

The police had one false identification - it turned out to be different type of plants but all of the other hits, he said, resulted in marijuana plants being confiscated.

In one case, it turned out to be an individual who had moved to the reservation from Colorado and had a medical card allowing the growing of marijuana for his own use.

"We explained that the card was not valid on the reservation and that he would have to go through the tribal court system here," Yazzie said of that particular case.

As they were working this case, the ground crews received a message from the officer on one of the helicopters saying that he was observing people at another site cutting down plants and putting them inside. The people had apparently grown suspicious seeing the helicopters patrolling the area looking for something.

Yazzie said he sent some officers to that site immediately and they caught people trying to hide the marijuana plants.

"We didn't make any arrests at that time but we're still investigating," he said.

The operation was such a success that the tribe wants to do this again before the snow falls, not only in other areas of the reservation's land in New Mexico but in Arizona as well.

He said the tribal police department is now in talks with the Arizona National Guard to undertake a similar operation there.

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