Two drug-smuggling tunnels outfitted with lighting and ventilation systems were discovered along the US-Mexico border, the latest signs that cartels are building sophisticated passages to escape heightened surveillance on land.
Both tunnels were at least 150m long. One began under a bathroom sink inside a warehouse in Tijuana, but was unfinished and did not cross the border into San Diego. The Mexican army found the tunnel on Wednesday.
The other was completed and discovered on Saturday in a vacant strip mall storefront in the southwestern Arizona city of San Luis. It showed a level of sophistication not typically associated with other crude smuggling passageways that tie into storm drains in the state.
“When you see what is there and the way they designed it, it wasn’t something that your average miner could put together,” said Douglas Coleman, special agent in charge of the Phoenix division of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “You would need someone with some engineering expertise to put something together like this.”
As US authorities heighten enforcement on land, tunnels have become an increasingly common way to smuggle enormous loads of heroin, marijuana and other drugs into the country. More than 70 passages have been found on the border since October 2008, surpassing the number of discoveries in the previous six years.
A total of 156 secret tunnels have been found along the border since 1990, the vast majority of them incomplete.
The latest Arizona tunnel was discovered after state police pulled over a man who had 17.7kg of methamphetamine in his vehicle and mentioned the strip mall.
The tunnel was found beneath a water tank in a storage room and stretched across the border to an ice-plant business in the Mexican city of San Luis Rio Colorado. It was reinforced with four-by-six beams and lined with plywood.
Investigators believe the tunnel was not in operation for long because there was little wear on its floor.
Coleman said investigators cannot yet say for sure if the tunnel, estimated to cost US$1.5 million to build, was operated by the powerful Sinaloa cartel. Still, authorities suspect cartel involvement because the group from Sinaloa controls smuggling routes into Arizona.
“Another cartel wasn’t going to roll into that area and put down that kind of money in Sinaloa territory,” Coleman said.