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March 25, 2016Tuscon, AZ, United StatesNarcotics

Owner of Calexico 'tunnel house' arrested in Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. – The owner of the Calexico, California, residence used to conceal the U.S. exit to a cross-border drug smuggling tunnel dismantled Wednesday has been was arrested in Tucson by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Augustin Enrique Cruz, aka Tinky, 22, of Tucson, was taken into custody Thursday on various federal criminal charges, including narcotics trafficking, money laundering and tunnel-related offenses. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California.

Wednesday, some 100 federal, state and local law enforcement personnel executed search and arrest warrants, marking the latest developments in a lengthy multi-agency investigation spearheaded by HSI into the more than 400-yard long tunnel, which originated beneath a coffee shop in Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico. So far, seven individuals have been arrested in the case, five in the U.S. and two in Mexico.

According to a criminal complaint, Cruz traveled from Arizona to the Calexico area on multiple occasions in late 2014 to look for property to serve as the exit point for a tunnel originating in Mexicali. In January 2014, Cruz purchased the property at 902 E. Third Street and it was placed in his name in July 2015.

After buying the land, Cruz and his coconspirators hired local contractors to build a new house on the lot. Cruz’s boss directed the contractor to leave a space in the foundation for a floor safe, which would serve as the exit point for the tunnel. Construction of the residence was completed in late December 2015 at a cost of approximately $86,000. According to court documents, in late January Cruz rented a walk-behind saw and concrete blade to widen the exit point of the tunnel. 

Unbeknownst to the defendants, the property purchase and home construction were being closely monitored by HSI special agents in Calexico. Based on court-authorized wiretaps and surveillance, HSI special agents learned that Cruz and his coconspirators began smuggling narcotics through the tunnel on or after Feb. 28. On March 7, HSI special agents and police officers in West Covina, California, seized over 1,350 pounds of marijuana that had been brought through the tunnel and transported to Los Angeles via Brawley. This is the only known instance where traffickers moved narcotics from Calexico to onward locations for distribution.

In addition to buying the property for the tunnel residence, the criminal complaint also alleges Cruz arranged to purchase several vehicles that were used to transport marijuana from the Third Street home to other storage locations in Calexico.

This is the first operational smuggling tunnel discovered in Calexico in a nearly a decade. It is the 12th large-scale drug smuggling tunnel discovered along the California-Mexico border since 2006. The majority of these passageways have been detected in the Otay Mesa area of San Diego, where the terrain is easier to excavate and the thousands of warehouses on either side of the border provide camouflage for illicit activities. 

Updated: 03/25/2016