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November 29, 2011San Diego, CA, United StatesNarcotics

Highly sophisticated cross-border drug tunnel discovered near San Diego

Investigators seize nearly $65 million worth of marijuana, arrest 6 suspects
Highly sophisticated cross-border drug tunnel discovered near San Diego

SAN DIEGO – Agencies with the San Diego Tunnel Task Force Wednesday announced the arrest of six suspects and the seizure of more than 32 tons of marijuana following the discovery of the most elaborate smuggling tunnel uncovered along the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years.

Investigators say the passageway, found Tuesday as a result of a six-month investigation by the multi-agency Task Force, connects a warehouse in San Diego's Otay Mesa industrial park with one in neighboring Tijuana, Mexico. The 612-yard long passageway is equipped with electric rail cars, lighting, reinforced walls and wooden floors.

On the Mexican side, the tunnel's entrance is accessed through a hydraulically-controlled steel door and an elevator concealed beneath the warehouse floor. At the bottom of the tunnel shaft is a large storage room where agents recovered approximately three tons of marijuana. Another ton of marijuana was piled in bundles near the tunnel's entrance. Meanwhile, investigators searched the Otay Mesa building that housed the tunnel's U.S. entry point, where they found nearly 17 tons of marijuana wrapped in plastic and stacked neatly on pallets.

The enforcement actions leading to the tunnel's discovery began unfolding Monday evening when investigators observed a tractor trailer truck leaving the Otay Mesa warehouse. After parking overnight in the Miramar area, a man picked up the rig early Tuesday and headed toward Los Angeles. Canines at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection-Border Patrol checkpoint in San Clemente alerted on the tractor trailer for the presence of drugs. Agents, aware of the ongoing investigation, waived the truck through the checkpoint and the driver proceeded to the City of Industry, Calif. There, he pulled into the parking lot of a warehouse located at 14837 Proctor Ave. and, together with three other individuals, began unloading the trailer's contents.

At that point, agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) moved in, taking custody of four suspects and seizing more than 11 tons of marijuana packed inside the truck's trailer. All told, Tuesday's enforcement actions resulted in the interdiction of more than 32 tons of marijuana with an estimated street value of nearly $65 million.

Two other suspects linked to the scheme were arrested overnight in Baldwin Park, Calif. The six defendants, all Hispanic males, are expected to make their initial appearances in federal court in Los Angeles and San Diego Wednesday afternoon.

Based on the continuing investigation, federal officials believe this latest tunnel had only recently become operational.

"From the conditions inside the passageway and our ongoing investigation, we're confident we've been able to shut this operation down before the perpetrators were able to use it for smuggling narcotics," said Derek Benner, special agent in charge for ICE HSI in San Diego. "It's clear though, from the level of sophistication involved, that the criminal organization responsible for constructing this tunnel had very ambitious plans."

The investigation into this latest cross-border passageway is being conducted by the San Diego Tunnel Task Force. The Task Force is made up of representatives from ICE 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.

"This is yet again an example of what can be achieved when law enforcement agencies join forces to address a common threat," said San Diego Chief Patrol Agent Paul A. Beeson. "It clearly demonstrates that the hard work of the men and women on this interagency taskforce can and will make a significant impact on the security of our nation."

"The Tunnel Task Force, working together with the Government of Mexico, is putting a stranglehold on the cartels' ability to smuggle drugs into the United States," said William R. Sherman, acting special agent in charge of the DEA in San Diego. "Seizing close to 50 tons of marijuana in one month denies the cartels the financial means to continue their operations."

Tuesday's tunnel is the second major cross-border smuggling passageway detected in the San Diego area in the last two weeks. The Tunnel Task Force uncovered another tunnel Nov. 15 that came up inside a warehouse near the Otay Mesa border crossing. That enforcement action resulted in the seizure of more than 14 tons of marijuana. The passageway uncovered Tuesday is the seventh large-scale drug smuggling tunnel discovered in the San Diego area since 2006. In the last four years, federal authorities have detected more than 75 cross-border smuggling tunnels, most of them in California and Arizona.

Updated: 12/09/2014