SAN DIEGO – A probe by the multi-agency San Diego Tunnel Task Force has resulted in the indictment of a high-ranking operative for Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel accused of masterminding two massive cross-border drug tunnels discovered along the U.S.-Mexico border in November 2010 and November 2011.
Jose Sanchez Villalobos, aka Quirino, 49, is charged in a 13-count federal indictment, handed down in February and unsealed Wednesday, with building, financing and operating two illicit underground passageways. Investigators say Sanchez Villalobos oversaw the shipment of large quantities of marijuana into the Tijuana area and arranged to have it smuggled through the sophisticated tunnels he controlled. U.S. authorities have asked Mexico to extradite him.
"This investigation clearly underscores our resolve to track down those responsible for constructing and financing the sophisticated tunnels we're increasingly seeing along the San Diego-Tijuana border," said Derek Benner, special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) San Diego. "I commend the collaborative work by agents on the San Diego Tunnel Task Force and the U.S. Attorney's Office for their perseverance and hard work that resulted in this significant indictment."
The indictment charges Sanchez Villalobos with nine counts of conspiracy to distribute and import marijuana and four counts of building, financing and using the tunnels. All but one of the counts in the indictment carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
According to the indictment, Sanchez Villalobos built, financed and operated a 612-yard cross-border drug tunnel discovered Thanksgiving Day 2010. The tunnel, equipped with rail tracks, connected a warehouse in San Diego's Otay Mesa industrial park with one in neighboring Tijuana, Mexico. On the Mexican side, the tunnel's entrance was accessed through a hydraulically-controlled steel door and an elevator concealed beneath the warehouse floor. The ensuing investigation by federal agents resulted in the seizure of more than 22 tons of marijuana.
The indictment further accuses Sanchez Villalobos of building, financing and operating a second major tunnel discovered by the San Diego Tunnel Task Force Nov. 29, 2011, in the same industrial park. That tunnel, which ran for 600 yards under the U.S.-Mexico border, resulted in the seizure of 32 tons of marijuana, including 26 tons recovered on the U.S. side – one of the largest marijuana seizures in U.S. history.
The San Diego Tunnel Task Force is comprised of federal agents from HSI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Border Patrol. To date, more than 150 tunnels have been discovered on the California-Mexico border, more than half of which were discovered in the last four years.