Sun, Nov 28, 2010 - Page 7 News List

Sophisticated drug tunnel in San Diego had railcar, lights

AP, SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA

A soldier looks at the entrance of a tunnel discovered in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, near the border with the US on Friday.

PHOTO: AFP

A sophisticated cross-border tunnel equipped with a rail system, ventilation and fluorescent lighting has been shut down by US and Mexican officials — the second discovery of a major underground drug passage in San Diego this month, authorities said on Friday.

The tunnel found on Thursday is 670m long — more than seven football fields — and runs from the kitchen of a home in Tijuana, Mexico, to two warehouses in San Diego’s Otay Mesa industrial district, said Mike Unzueta, head of investigations at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Diego.

In Mexico, the tunnel’s cinderblock-lined entry dropped 24m to 27m to a wood-lined floor, Unzueta said. From the US side, there was a stairway leading to a room about 15m underground that was full of marijuana.

“It’s a lot like how the ancient Egyptians buried the kings and queens,” Unzueta said.

Unzueta said the tunnel discovered on Thursday and another found early this month are believed to be the work of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, headed by that country’s most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

“We think ultimately they are controlled by the same overall cartel but that the tunnels were being managed and run independently by different cells operating within the same organization,” Unzueta said.

The passage found on Thursday is one of the most advanced to date, with an entry shaft in Mexico lined with cinderblocks and a rail system for drugs to be carried on a small cart, Unzueta said.

Authorities seized more than 20 tonnes of marijuana. Three men were arrested in the US and the Mexican military raided a ranch in Mexico and made five arrests in connection with the -tunnel, -authorities said.

US authorities have discovered more than 125 clandestine tunnels along the Mexican border since the early 1990s, though many were crude and incomplete.

US authorities do not know how long the latest tunnel was operating. Unzueta said investigators began to look into it in June on a tip that emerged from a large bust of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

US authorities followed a trailer from one of the warehouses to a Border Patrol checkpoint in Temecula, where they seized 12,519kg of marijuana. The driver, whose name was not released, was arrested, along with two others who went to a residence in suburban El Cajon that had US$13,500 cash inside.

“That [trailer] was literally filled top to bottom, front to back,” Unzueta said. “There wasn’t any room for anything else in that tractor-trailer but air.”

Three tonnes of marijuana were found in a “subterranean room” and elsewhere in the tunnel on the US side, authorities said. Mexican officials seized four tonnes of pot at a ranch in northern Mexico, bringing the total haul to more than 20 tonnes.

The discovery of the cross-border tunnel earlier this month marked one of the largest marijuana seizures in the US, with agents confiscating 20 tonnes of marijuana they said was smuggled through the underground passage. One of the warehouses involved in the tunnel discovered on Thursday is only a half-block away.

Several sophisticated tunnels have ended in San Diego warehouses.

ICE began meeting with landowners last month to warn them about leasing space to tunnel builders.

“These owners of warehouses, they need to know their customers, they need to know who’s in there leasing these things,” -Unzueta said.

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