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Narcotics
11/16/2011

Major cross-border drug tunnel discovered south of San Diego

Authorities recover an estimated 14 tons of marijuana tied to passageway

Major cross-border drug tunnel discovered south of San Diego
Major cross-border drug tunnel discovered south of San Diego
Major cross-border drug tunnel discovered south of San Diego

SAN DIEGO — Investigators on the multi-agency San Diego Tunnel Task Force continued sifting through evidence Wednesday at a warehouse in Otay Mesa's industrial park housing the U.S. entrance to a sophisticated passageway that runs beneath the border to a warehouse more than 400 yards away in Tijuana, Mexico.

Authorities confirmed the existence of the tunnel Tuesday evening after obtaining a federal warrant to search the warehouse located at 8851 Kerns Street, near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. Inside the nondescript white building, investigators discovered the entrance to the passageway. From the warehouse floor, the tunnel plunges more than 20 feet to the bottom of the shaft. The passageway, measuring approximately four feet by three feet, is equipped with structural supports, electricity and ventilation. Evidence found inside the warehouse leads investigators to believe the tunnel was only recently completed.

The Tunnel Task Force recently began conducting surveillance on the Otay Mesa warehouse after observing possible suspicious activity at the site. Tuesday afternoon, agents spotted a small cargo truck leaving the facility. Officers with the California Highway Patrol subsequently pulled the truck over on highway 125 near the warehouse. Inside the trailer, officers discovered approximately three tons of marijuana packed in boxes. The male driver and a male passenger were taken into custody at the scene and are facing federal drug charges.

Based upon the results of the vehicle stop, agents obtained a warrant to enter the warehouse, where they recovered approximately 6.5 additional tons of marijuana. Meanwhile, Task Force officers alerted authorities in Mexico, who made entry into the Tijuana warehouse, resulting in the seizure of another five to six tons of marijuana.

The ongoing investigation is being conducted by the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, made up of representatives from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Border Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. Formed in 2003, 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. That includes following up on tips, many of which come from the public.

"The discovery of this tunnel is a tribute not only to the effectiveness of our joint investigative efforts, but also to the significant benefits we're gaining by using new technology to target this kind of smuggling activity," said Derek Benner, special agent in charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego. "The drug cartels mistakenly believe they can elude detection by taking their contraband underground, but, again and again, we've been able to find these tunnels and shut them down."

"This significant cross-border drug seizure and tunnel discovery by the San Diego Tunnel Task Force is an excellent example of the effective collaboration among law enforcement agencies in San Diego," said Paul Beeson, chief patrol agent for the San Diego Border Patrol Sector. "A key component of that strategy is intelligence sharing between CBP and its law enforcement partners, including the government of Mexico. This undoubtedly fosters a safer and more secure border environment that advances our goal to dismantle and defeat the transnational criminal organizations that threaten the safety of our country."

"The fact that this is the third sophisticated cross border tunnel found within a year's time demonstrates the cartels will stop at nothing to smuggle their drugs into the United States," said William R. Sherman, acting special agent in charge for the DEA in San Diego. "The seizure of marijuana coupled with the loss of yet another tunnel will deal a heavy blow to those responsible for constructing this tunnel."

"Last night's operation again highlights the importance of collaborative efforts among our law enforcement partners along the southwest border," said Sara Simpson, senior special agent in charge for the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. "Our ability to pool resources and expertise to identify, investigate and dismantle sophisticated cross border tunnels sends a powerful message to criminal organizations involved in drug smuggling, human trafficking and other illegal activities."

In the last four years, federal authorities have detected more than 75 cross-border smuggling tunnels, most of them in California and Arizona. The passageway uncovered Tuesday is the sixth large-scale drug smuggling tunnel discovered in the San Diego since 2006. Last year, local investigators identified two highly sophisticated tunnels in the area, one on Election Day and one three weeks later on Thanksgiving.