SAN LUIS, Ariz. — The powerful Sinaloa drug cartel is believed to be behind one of the most sophisticated and well-engineered smuggling tunnels ever found along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to U.S. drug enforcement officials who announced the discovery Thursday in Yuma.
The “fully operational” tunnel is a 755-foot passageway, tall enough for a 6-foot person to walk through, that burrows under the border fence, a park and a water canal. It connects a small, nondescript warehouse on the U.S. side to an inoperative ice manufacturing plant behind a strip club in Mexico.
It is outfitted with lights, fans and a ventilation system. The vertical shafts on both sides of the border descend 57 feet, creating what officials said were significant engineering challenges.
“I would suspect that professional engineers were cooperating with the builders, if not working on site,” said Doug Coleman, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Phoenix field office. He said construction might have taken at least a year and cost an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million.
It was unclear how much, if any, contraband may have been smuggled through the recently completed tunnel, but authorities said its existence was exposed by the seizure last week of a 39-pound load of methamphetamine. The drugs were found by state police during a traffic stop on the highway between San Luis and Yuma and then traced back to the warehouse.
Two couriers were arrested, one of them a U.S. citizen. A third person also has been arrested in a case that Coleman said was “only beginning.” Coleman declined to answer questions about the continuing investigation.
DEA investigators who searched the warehouse found tons of sandy soil stored in dozens of 55-gallon drums. The stored dirt “suggested there must be a tunnel,” Coleman said at a news conference Thursday.
Access to the tunnel was located under a 2,000-gallon water tank that could be moved only with the use of a forklift. Investigators found the vertical shaft lined with 4-by-6-inch wooden planks. The tunnel itself is lined with plywood and reinforced with the same planks. It is about 6 feet 6 high and 4 feet wide.
On the Mexico side, access was found in the ice house, where investigators also found stacks of 200-pound seed bags apparently filled with additional tons of excavated sand and dirt. Entry to the vertical shaft was underwater. Investigators had to drain a large tank to get to it.
Asked to compare the tunnel to nearly 140 others found along the Mexican border with Arizona and California in the past 10 years, Coleman said he had seen nothing like it. “It’s an extraordinary piece of engineering,” he said.
The one-story warehouse, part of a strip mall only a few steps from the San Luis border crossing, had been under surveillance by DEA agents for several months as a suspected stash location. The ice house also had been a suspect site in the past, raided at various times in recent years by Mexican drug agents without anything suspicious turning up.
Coleman said that although the people behind the tunnel had yet to be identified, “it’s a good guess” that it will be tied to the Sinaloa cartel and people employed by drug boss Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman.
DEA officials said estimates that the tunnel could have cost as much as $2 million were based on initial analysis of the materials used in construction. They speculated that sophisticated underground sensors and directional devices might have been used to assure that the tunnel from the Mexico side actually met the vertical shaft under the San Luis warehouse.
Also found at the warehouse were two vans formerly operated by the U.S. Postal Service, faded remnants of their identifying decals still visible. Investigators believe the cartel intended to disguise some of its drug shipments as U.S. mail.
Jay Crede of Homeland Security Investigations said the tunnel was of obvious concern to his department, but he celebrated its discovery. He called the loss of the tunnel “a blow to … traffickers.”
Another DEA veteran, Coleman aide Chris Feistl, went further. “As drug cases go, we didn’t get a whole lot of dope in this seizure,” he said, “but when you think about how much cartel time and effort and money went into this tunnel — we really ruined somebody’s day.”
The 39 pounds of methamphetamine has an estimated wholesale value to the cartel of nearly $700,000. Its street value is about five times higher.