Owner of home used in cross-border drug tunnel is arrested in Arizona

The owner of the Calexico home where authorities discovered a drug tunnel that stretched across the border into Mexico was arrested Thursday in Tucson and charged with drug trafficking and money laundering, federal prosecutors said.

Augustin Enrique Cruz, who goes by the moniker “Tinky,” was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security agents and is expected to appear in an Arizona federal courtroom before extradition to Southern California, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego.

The arrest comes one day after investigators seized a 415-yard drug tunnel that was allegedly used to transport drugs between El Sarape Restaurant in Mexicali, Mexico, and a newly built home on Third Street in Calexico. Inside the home, the tunnel's entryway was hidden by floor tiles.

The trafficking scheme was notable, prosecutors said, because it’s the first time property was purchased with the express purpose of building a home to disguise a drug tunnel.

In that scheme, prosecutors alleged, Cruz was a central figure.

Cruz, a U.S. citizen, visited the Calexico area from Arizona several times in late 2014 to scout properties for the eventual tunnel, according to a criminal complaint.

In January 2015, Cruz bought the land in the 900 block of East Third Street. The money for the purchase came from cash picked up from Cruz’s co-conspirators in California and Arizona, prosecutors said.

Cruz and his associates hired contractors to build the home, and Cruz’s boss gave instructions to leave a spot in the foundation for a safe encased in the floor, prosecutors said. That spot would serve as the tunnel’s entry point.

The home was completed in December 2015. The next month, Cruz rented construction equipment to widen the tunnel’s exit point.

Federal investigators were monitoring the property throughout the construction of the home, and listened in on phone calls between Cruz and his father during which they discussed the tunnel.

Starting on Feb. 28, prosecutors allege, Cruz and his associates began moving narcotics through the tunnel and later transporting drugs to another home in Calexico. From there, the drugs went to a nearby warehouse.

On March 7, investigators nabbed more than 1,300 pounds of marijuana that moved through the tunnel into Calexico and eventually to Los Angeles.

Two men, Joel Duarte Medina and Manuel Gallegos Jiminez, were arrested Wednesday in connection with the tunnel, prosecutors said.

A woman, Eva Duarte De Medina, was arrested in Arizona in connection with the tunnel and faces charges of conspiracy to import marijuana and conspiracy to maintain drug premises.

Cruz is charged with five counts: conspiracy to import controlled substances; conspiracy to maintain drug-related premises; money laundering; and aiding in the construction and use of a narcotics tunnel. Each of the five counts carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

For breaking news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

Kristina Davis, a staff writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, contributed to this report.


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