TUCSON, Ariz. -- An armed citizens patrol seized about 280 pounds of marijuana from smugglers crossing a ranch owned by an environmental group.
About 13 volunteers of Ranch Rescue have been working near Lochiel since Saturday in their first mission aimed at surveillance, rather than cleanups at border-area ranches.
An official of The Nature Conservancy, which owns the San Antonio Ranch where the marijuana was seized, said he was unaware that private patrols had been operating on the ranch. Tom Collazo, director of conservation for the conservancy's Arizona branch, said the ranch manager Thursday would ask the group to stop.
Jack Foote of Ranch Rescue said the group received permission to conduct surveillance from a ranch manager -- something Collazo says was the result of a misunderstanding.
Armed with semiautomatic rifles, the camouflage-clad Ranch Rescue members built a hide out near a ranch trail Tuesday evening.
Once on Tuesday and then again on Wednesday, the volunteers stopped people who were carrying bundles on their backs. When told to stop, the smugglers dropped their packs and ran, Foote said.
He called the media to record the event and then law enforcement to pick up the bundles.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Deputy Ruben Laredo picked up the 13 bundles of burlap-wrapped marijuana on Wednesday.
But the work of the Ranch Rescue group worries Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada.
"The concern is that these individuals, as well-meaning as they may be, could cause a major problem down there," he said. "They don't have the training or the authority to be intercepting loads down there. That's better suited for law enforcement."
He also questioned the roughly 18-hour lapse between the time the smugglers dropped the initial load and the time the sheriff's office was notified. Estrada also noted the bundles were moved from where they were dropped to a place near the ranch house.
"Obviously they wanted the impact of this particular event to reflect favorably on their presence, and they wanted the media there before we got there," Estrada said. "It could have been handled much better."
Ranch Rescue was formed in 2000 when Foote, of Abilene, Texas, was inspired by news accounts of Cochise County rancher Roger Barnett. For years, Barnett and family members have patrolled their ranch east of Douglas, sometimes detaining illegal immigrants.
Until now, Ranch Rescue's focus has been on helping ranchers fix fences and clean up trash, though they generally worked well-armed and wearing uniforms.