SAN DIEGO - Eight suspects are in custody on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and more than 20 tons of marijuana have been seized following the San Diego Tunnel Task Force's discovery Thursday of a cross-border passageway even more sophisticated than a similar tunnel uncovered in the area less than three weeks ago.
Unlike previous area tunnels, the nearly half-mile long passageway had two U.S. entrances located in warehouses about 800 feet apart in the Otay Mesa industrial complex in southern San Diego. The tunnel, which reached an estimated depth of 90 feet, emerged in Tijuana, Mexico, inside a stucco residence outfitted with a garage large enough to accommodate deliveries by tractor trailer trucks. Inside, the tunnel's walls were fortified with wood and cinderblock supports and the passageway was equipped with advanced rail, electrical and ventilation systems. In addition, near one of the tunnel's entrances, its builders had carved out a 10 by 20 foot underground room where authorities believe smugglers off-loaded marijuana bales from the rail cart before hoisting them to the surface.
The tunnel discovery is the result of an ongoing investigation by the multi-agency San Diego Tunnel Task Force, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Formed seven years ago, the task force uses a variety of techniques to detect cross-border tunnels, from state-of-the-art electronic surveillance to old fashioned detective work.
The tunnel was located Thursday morning after task force agents conducting surveillance in the Otay Mesa area observed suspicious activity involving a tractor trailer truck parked at a warehouse in the 10000 block of Marconi Drive where one of the tunnel's entrances was later found. After the truck left the site, agents kept it under surveillance, alerting CBP Border Patrol as it approached the traffic checkpoint in Temecula. There, Border Patrol agents stopped the vehicle and a search of the truck's trailer revealed more than 27,600 pounds of marijuana. The vehicle's driver was taken into custody and will be prosecuted on federal drug smuggling charges.
"This discovery again shows the cartels' growing desperation in the face of beefed up border security and the costly extremes these organizations are trying in an effort to avoid detection," said Miguel Unzueta, special agent in charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego. "Once again, we've thwarted their scheme and I predict you'll see more such successes in the future as the Task Force ramps up its outreach to businesses in the Otay Mesa area. While we have a vast array of high-tech equipment at our disposal, public tips play a huge part in our ongoing enforcement efforts."
As the case began unfolding here, task force agents contacted the Mexican military with several leads and a search Thursday afternoon at a ranch in northern Mexico yielded another four tons of marijuana. Finally, after entering the tunnel itself, investigators recovered more than 6,000 additional pounds of pot inside.
"The discovery of this tunnel is the result of law enforcement's tenacity and willingness to work together to combat the latest method of drug smuggling by drug trafficking organizations," said Ralph Partridge, special agent in charge for the DEA in San Diego. "The magnitude of this discovery can only be compared to the measure of disruption its discovery will have on drug traffickers."
So far, eight suspects have been taken into custody in connection with the ongoing investigation. In addition to the truck driver intercepted at the Temecula checkpoint, task force agents arrested a second man in El Cajon, Calif., who was observed at the Otay Mesa warehouse Thursday morning. The six remaining arrests were made by authorities in Mexico.
"Our border security mission continues to evolve as new vulnerabilities and threats persist," said Paul Beeson, chief patrol agent for the San Diego Border Patrol sector. "I am confident that our collaborative law enforcement efforts on both sides of the border, specifically the efforts of Mexican military, will allow us to adapt and defeat these threats. Yesterday's discovery is a true indicator that intelligence and operational collaboration within the law enforcement community is essential for effective border security."
Authorities emphasize that their investigation into this latest tunnel is ongoing. In the last four years, federal authorities have detected more than 75 cross-border smuggling tunnels, most of them in California and Arizona.