U.S. and Mexican authorities have discovered a cross-border drug tunnel linking warehouses in San Diego and Tijuana, the culmination of a six-month undercover investigation that resulted in the arrests of 22 suspected traffickers.
Mexican federal agents seized 10 tons of marijuana after a surprise raid Wednesday night at a cinder-block building that housed the opening of the tunnel. The raid was triggered after an undercover agent with the U.S. Tunnel Task Force met with two suspected traffickers at a restaurant in San Diego, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
The agent, posing as a smuggler, previously had helped the men to transport dirt hauled out of the San Diego warehouse, prosecutors said. According to authorities, the suspects at the meeting discussed the logistics of moving a large drug load, indicating that a smuggling operation was imminent.
It was the first time the tunnel had been used to move a large quantity of drugs, officials said. "We see a super tunnel open for business once every year or so," U.S. Atty. Laura Duffy said. "Just when they think they're ready to move, we put it out of business."
The two suspects who met with the undercover agent were arrested in the U.S. Agents also hauled out at least two tons of marijuana — bundled in hundreds of packages — from the tunnel inside the San Diego warehouse.
The passageway stretched about 2,600 feet, which would make it one of the longest ever built under the U.S.-Mexico border, according to U.S. authorities. It had all the features of a sophisticated underground passageway: ventilation, a cart-and-rail system and lighting.
Like most such tunnels found in recent years, it was located in the light industrial neighborhood of Otay Mesa, an area congested with long-haul trucks and warehouses.
During their weeks-long surveillance of the facility, Mexican agents saw "intense movement" of trucks coming and going from the building, Mexico's Interior Ministry said in a news release. The suspected traffickers gave up without a shot being fired.
Ranging in age from 21 to 50, the men told authorities that they worked for an organized crime group from the state of Jalisco — home to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a hyperviolent group that quickly has become one of the country's strongest criminal syndicates. If true, its expansion into Tijuana would mark a serious shift of power in the city's criminal underworld.
Most tunnels under the California border in recent years are believed to have been constructed by the Sinaloa drug cartel. Its leader, Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, escaped through a tunnel from maximum security Mexican prison last summer.
The marijuana seized Wednesday had an estimated street value of nearly $6 million, authorities said. The tunnel was the 10th large scale passageway discovered in the area since 2006.