Federal authorities said Wednesday that a half-mile, cross-border tunnel discovered in San Diego’s Otay Mesa neighborhood Saturday is the longest drug tunnel to be found along the California-Mexico border ever.
The zig-zagging passage, which runs from a flophouse in Tijuana to a fenced-in lot advertised as a wooden pallet business, is estimated to be about 2,600 feet — or about nine football fields long. U.S. Atty. Laura Duffy said the tunnel was sophisticated, complete with a ventilation system and lighting. On the Tijuana side, the tunnel even ended at an elevator that ascended into the house.
During the investigation, authorities seized 2,242 pounds of cocaine and 14,000 pounds of marijuana suspected of being transported through the tunnel into the United States. It was likely the largest single seizure of cocaine ever related to a tunnel on the California-Mexico border, Duffy said.
It’s the second “super tunnel” to be discovered in recent weeks, Duffy said. In March, authorities uncovered a 415-yard tunnel that connected a restaurant in Mexicali to a house in Calexico.
Six men have been arrested in connection with the Otay Mesa discovery and face various charges including conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine and conspiracy to use a border tunnel. The suspects included one U.S. citizen, two Cuban asylum-seekers, and three Mexican nationals. One Mexican national was a legal resident and the other two had cards that allowed them to quickly cross the border.
Authorities suspect they know which organization was using the tunnel but declined to say which. They also would not say if the tunnel was related to the one found in Calexico.
“The tunnel exit on this side really bears no resemblance to those that we’ve seen before with other super tunnels around which architects and engineers and traffickers really take elaborate steps to conceal the tunnel,” Duffy said at a news conference on the discovery.
“This tunnel exit is literally a hole in the ground in the middle of this area. I think it fair to say that few would suspect that traffickers were moving multi-ton quantities of cocaine and marijuana in this very unassuming way in full view of the world around them.”
Authorities said U.S. Border Patrol officials received a tip about the tunnel in late 2015 and agents began surveillance of what appeared to be a business near Enrico Fermi and Marconi drives. They soon noticed what looked like practice smuggling runs, Duffy said.
Months later, on April 12, agents noticed a white commercial truck deliver a dumpster to the lot and place it on the ground.
The next day, agents watched two men start a conversation with someone — either in the dumpster or underneath it. They then loaded the dumpster into the truck, which was driven to a parking lot on Imperial Avenue and 30th Street near Logan Heights.
Once it arrived, under the cover of a tarp, men apparently began moving something from the dumpster to a second box truck. Hours later, the truck drove off. It was stopped by sheriff’s deputies, and more than 12,000 pounds of drugs were found inside.
Federal authorities then obtained a warrant to search the dumpster and the lot.
An additional 1,430 pounds of marijuana were found in the dumpster. Agents found the tunnel during their search of the lot, directly beneath where the dumpster had been.
The entrance descended 10 feet and connected with a main passage, which was about three feet across. Inside, they found 68 bales of marijuana.
Authorities do not suspect any other drugs or people were successfully smuggled through the tunnel. Once the investigation of the tunnel is complete, it will be filled with cement.
The tunnel is the 13th large-scale drug smuggling tunnel to be discovered on the California border since 2006. More than 75 cross-border tunnels have been found in the last five years, most of them in California and Arizona.
Winkley writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.