Sophisticated drug tunnel found in Otay Mesa warehouse
This image provided by the San Diego Tunnel Task Force shows the entrance to a cross-border tunnel in San Diego on Nov. 29, 2011. (AP Photo/San Diego Tunnel Task Force)
SAN DIEGO (CNS) - A half-dozen suspected international drug traffickers were behind bars Wednesday following the discovery of a highly sophisticated cross-border drug-smuggling tunnel running between warehouses in Otay Mesa and Tijuana, the second major find of its kind this month.
A total of 23 tons of bundled marijuana was stashed inside the deluxe passageway when the San Diego Tunnel Task Force found it Tuesday following a six-month investigation, federal officials said at an afternoon news conference Wednesday.
Outfitted with lighting, wooden floors, reinforced walls and electric rail cars, the 612-yard underground channel was "the most elaborate smuggling tunnel uncovered along the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years," according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
On the Mexican side, the entrance was accessed through a hydraulically controlled steel door and an elevator concealed beneath the storehouse floor, authorities said.
The enforcement actions leading to the discovery began Monday evening, when investigators saw a big rig leaving the Otay Mesa warehouse that turned out to be housing the northern access point to the tunnel. After the truck was parked overnight in the Miramar area, a man picked it up and headed toward Los Angeles.
At the San Clemente Border Patrol Checkpoint on Interstate 5, service dogs alerted agents to the presence of contraband in the tractor-trailer. The personnel, however, were aware of the ongoing investigation and thus waved the truck through the inspection station as planned.
The driver then proceeded to the City of Industry, where he stopped at a warehouse in the 14800 block of Proctor Avenue and began unloading the trailer with the help of three other people.
At that point, ICE agents moved in, taking custody of the four suspects and seizing close to 11 tons of marijuana packed inside the trailer.
Two other men allegedly linked to the scheme were arrested overnight in Baldwin Park.
The six defendants, whose names were not immediately available, were expected to make initial appearances in federal courtrooms in San Diego and Los Angeles Wednesday afternoon.
All told, the discovery of the tunnel and the capture of the drug shipment in San Gabriel Valley resulted in the seizure of a quantity of marijuana with an estimated street value of nearly $65 million, officials said.
The carefully built and well-equipped passageway between industrial parks in southern San Diego and Mexico apparently had only recently become operational and had yet to serve as a conduit for shipments of illegal narcotics, according to Derek Benner, special agent in charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego.
"It's clear, though, from the level of sophistication involved, that the criminal organization responsible for constructing this tunnel had very ambitious plans," he said.
Two weeks ago, the tunnel task force uncovered a 400-yard subterranean smuggling passage between storage buildings in Tijuana and the 8800 block of Kerns Street in Otay Mesa.
Near the northern access point to that channel, which was equipped with structural supports, ventilation and electricity, investigators seized a stash of about 6 1/2 tons of marijuana, according to ICE. At the other end, Mexican police impounded seven more tons of cannabis.
The discovery and closure of the two major tunnels over a 14-day period demonstrated U.S. and Mexican government agencies' success in "putting a stranglehold on the cartels' ability to smuggle drugs into the United States," said William Sherman, acting special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego.
"Seizing close to 50 tons of marijuana in one month denies the cartels the financial means to continue their operations," he told news crews.
Over the last four years, authorities have uncovered more than 75 cross-border smuggling tunnels, most of them in California and Arizona, according to ICE.