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January 19, 2011San Diego, CAUnited StatesNarcotics

Truck driver admits to smuggling tons of marijuana through tunnel

Guilty plea follows one of the largest marijuana seizures in U.S. history

SAN DIEGO - A truck driver pleaded guilty here Thursday to drug smuggling charges after admitting he smuggled tons of marijuana through a sophisticated 600-yard underground cross-border passageway discovered two months ago by federal agents on the San Diego Tunnel Task Force.

Carlos Cunningham, Jr., 29, entered his guilty plea to conspiracy charges for distributing more than 19,400 pounds of marijuana before U.S. Magistrate Judge William Gallo in federal court. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Cunningham now faces from 21 years to more than 27 years in prison.

"This investigation resulted in the one of the largest marijuana seizures in U.S. history and underscores our resolve to combat smuggling through tunnels," said Joe Garcia, deputy special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). "I commend all of the federal agents assigned to the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, which includes ICE, DEA and the U.S Border Patrol for their hard work and perseverance."

According to the court documents, Cunningham admitted he had hauled multiple loads of marijuana from San Diego to Central California in a tractor-trailer, and that he was aware the marijuana was smuggled into the United States from Mexico through a cross-border smuggling tunnel.

The exit point for that tunnel was discovered inside a nondescript warehouse in the Otay Mesa commercial complex by federal agents on the San Diego Tunnel Task Force on Nov. 2, 2010. The tunnel linked the warehouse to a vacant commercial building in Tijuana, Mexico.

On the morning of Nov. 2, agents followed the tractor-trailer driven by Cunningham as it left the warehouse located at 9948 Via De La Amistad. When the truck reached the U.S. Border Patrol's checkpoint in Temecula, a search revealed 19,400 pounds of marijuana packed inside large cargo boxes that filled the entire trailer.

Following the marijuana seizure, agents executed a federal search warrant at the warehouse on the U.S. side and discovered another 28,782 pounds of marijuana in bulk packages inside the building. Across the border, authorities reported seizing 9,878 pounds of marijuana at the tunnel's Mexican entrance.

In the last four years, federal authorities have detected more than 77 cross-border smuggling tunnels, most of them in California and Arizona.

The multi-agency San Diego Tunnel Task Force is comprised of federal agents from ICE's HSI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection - Border Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. The agents investigate tunneling activity along the U.S-Mexico border.

Updated: 12/29/2014