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Major cross-border drug tunnel discovered

About 30 tons of marijuana recovered during searches overnight

SAN DIEGO - Following one of the largest marijuana seizures in the nation's history, agents assigned to the San Diego Tunnel Task Force continued their investigation Wednesday into a sophisticated 600-yard underground cross-border passageway discovered overnight that led to the recovery of 30 tons of marijuana.

The crawlspace-sized passageway, connecting an Otay Mesa warehouse in the 9000 block of Via de la Amistad with a similar building in Tijuana, Mexico, is equipped with rail, lighting and ventilation systems. Based upon preliminary indications, authorities believe the passageway was probably completed very recently.

"Today was a bad day for the cartels. This discovery again shows their growing desperation in the face of heightened border security," said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton. "Frustrated by our defenses, they're literally going underground, but we're thwarting them there as well. That's due in no small part to the extraordinary ongoing enforcement efforts involving the agencies on the Tunnel Task Force and our counterparts in Mexico."

The discovery of the tunnel is the result of a continuing investigation by the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, which is made up of representatives from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 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.

Acting Chief Border Patrol Agent Richard A. Barlow, who oversees the Border Patrol's San Diego Sector, said "This major cross-border drug seizure is an outstanding example of border-centric intelligence fusion and coordination of operations with our law enforcement partners to target the criminal organizations that seek to do harm to our country."

Tuesday morning, while conducting surveillance in the Otay Mesa area, Task Force agents observed suspicious activity involving a tractor trailer truck parked at the warehouse where the tunnel entrance was later discovered. After the truck left the location, agents kept it under surveillance, alerting the Border Patrol as it approached the traffic checkpoint in Temecula. There, Border Patrol agents stopped the vehicle and a subsequent search of the truck's trailer revealed 10 tons of marijuana packed in large cargo boxes. The vehicle's driver and passenger were taken into custody and will be prosecuted on federal drug smuggling charges.

Following the seizure, Task Force agents obtained a federal search warrant for the Otay Mesa warehouse. When they entered the building Tuesday night they discovered a 16-ton cache of marijuana and the entrance to the cross-border tunnel. Task Force agents quickly alerted Mexican military personnel who quickly located the tunnel's other entrance at a warehouse in Tijuana. Inside that building, Mexican authorities recovered another four tons of marijuana, bringing the estimated street value of the marijuana seized in the case so far to almost $30 million.

In the last four years, federal authorities have detected more than 75 cross-border smuggling tunnels, most of them in California and Arizona. Authorities emphasize the investigation related to this latest tunnel discovery is ongoing.