Law enforcement officers late Saturday arrested another man suspected of tending a southern Utah marijuana field and on Sunday were still counting the number of plants.
Washington County Sheriff's Lt. Rob Tersigni said the estimate Sunday afternoon stood at 10,000 to 20,000 marijuana plants. A Utah Highway Patrol helicopter helping remove the plants could be heard in the background as Tersigni fielded questions by telephone.
Police found the latest suspect, the 38th, in Veyo. The sheriff's office has cautioned residents more suspects may have fled into the county's mix of desert and mountains.
The latest field was found in Cove Wash, northwest of Veyo along General Steam Road.
Sue Thomas, a supervisory special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the farm was operated by a Mexican cartel with distribution points in Nevada and California. Previous marijuana fields busted in Utah have had fewer than 10 people working in them, but Thomas said this field was better staffed because of its size and because the cartel was preparing to harvest the marijuana.
"This is harvest time, and this was a huge grow that spanned about half a mile of a stream in the bottom of the canyon," Thomas said.
Cartel managers from California were present to oversee the harvest, Thomas said.
"We get rid of the managers, [the cartel] won't be coming back next year," Thomas said.
Thomas said federal law enforcement had been investigating the cartel for a year and waited until those managers were present before raiding the farm Saturday with about 70 peace officers from local, state and federal agencies.
"We have never seen this many people in a grow," Thomas said. "This is incredibly unusual."
Thomas declined to disclose the name of the cartel. She said all of those arrested are suspected of being undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Some may be juveniles, she said, who may be prosecuted in Utah's juvenile court system rather than federally. Officers also found one loaded 9 mm pistol, she said.
Thomas said other cartels continue to grow marijuana on southern Utah's vast public lands.