Federal officials on Tuesday arrested six people and seized more than 32 tons of marijuana with a street value of $65 million following a six-month investigation into an elaborate U.S.-Mexico border drug tunnel equipped with an elevator and electric rail cars.
The different agencies with the San Diego Tunnel Task Force made the announcement of the smuggling tunnel on Wednesday. Officials with the agencies said the tunnel is the most elaborate they have uncovered along the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years.
Officials said the passageway is also the seventh large-scale drug smuggling tunnel found in the San Diego area since 2006.
It seems law enforcement officials are diligently making a tough crack down on drug smugglers as Tuesday's tunnel is the second major cross-border smuggling passageway officials have detected in the San Diego area within the last two weeks.
According to a statement issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the Tunnel Task Force discovered another tunnel on Nov. 15 that opened inside a warehouse near the Otay Mesa border crossing. Law enforcement officials seized more than 14 tons of marijuana on that discovery, ICE said.
The agency noted that within the last four years, federal authorities have detected more than 75 cross-border smuggling tunnels, most of which are located in California and Arizona.
Tunnel as Long as 6 Football Fields
Officials said the tunnel they found on Tuesday connects one warehouse in San Diego's Otay Mesa industrial park to another Tijuana, Mexico. The tunnel is 612-yard long - the size of six football fields - and is built with electric rail cars, lighting, reinforced walls and wooden floors, officials revealed.
Law enforcement officials noted in their statement that over on the Mexican side, the tunnel has an entrance that is accessed through a hydraulically-controlled steel door and an elevator that is hidden beneath the warehouse floor.
A large storage room is located at the bottom of the tunnel shaft.
Agents working the case said they recovered approximately three tons of marijuana. Another ton of marijuana was stocked in bundles near the tunnel's entrance, ICE press release stated.
Upon searching the Otay Mesa building, which houses the tunnel's U.S. entrance, investigators said they found almost 17 tons of marijuana wrapped in plastic and stacked on pallets.
Officials believe the tunnel recently became operational.
From the conditions inside the passageway and our ongoing investigation, we're confident we've been able to shut this operation down before the perpetrators were able to use it for smuggling narcotics, said Derek Benner, special agent in charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations, or HIS, in San Diego, in a statement. It's clear though, from the level of sophistication involved, that the criminal organization responsible for constructing this tunnel had very ambitious plans.
Cleaning Everything Out
Law enforcement officials began putting their plan into action on Monday when things began unfolding.
Investigators said on that day, they watched a tractor trailer truck leaving the Otay Mesa warehouse. That truck parked overnight in the Miramar area, where a man picked it up early Tuesday and headed toward Los Angeles.
While at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection-Border Patrol checkpoint in San Clemente, canines indicated the presence of drugs on tractor trailer, ICE stated, noting that agents who were aware of the ongoing investigation allowed the truck to proceed past the checkpoint toward the City of Industry, Calif.
Once at the destination, ICE said the driver pulled into the parking lot of a warehouse on Proctor Ave. and began unloading the contents in the trailer with help from three others.
Agents Move In
Agents from ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) quickly moved in and placed the four suspects in custody. They also seized the more than 11 tons of marijuana that was inside the truck's trailer, making the grand total of more than 32 tons of marijuana taken off the street.
ICE's statement noted that the street value of that amount of drugs is nearly $65 million.
Two other suspects whom investigators believe are connected to the drug smuggling ring were arrested overnight in Baldwin Park, Calif.
ICE said the six men were expected to be arraigned in federal court in Los Angeles and San Diego on Wednesday.
This is yet again an example of what can be achieved when law enforcement agencies join forces to address a common threat, San Diego Chief Patrol Agent Paul A. Beeson said in statement. It clearly demonstrates that the hard work of the men and women on this interagency taskforce can and will make a significant impact on the security of our nation.
The San Diego Tunnel Task Force was created in 2003 and employs different techniques to in finding cross-border tunnels, according to ICE. The agency's press release noted that those techniques include state-of-the-art electronic surveillance and also old-fashioned detective work that includes following up on tips from the public.
The Tunnel Task Force, working together with the Government of Mexico, is putting a stranglehold on the cartels' ability to smuggle drugs into the United States, William R. Sherman, acting special agent in charge of the DEA in San Diego noted in a statement. Seizing close to 50 tons of marijuana in one month denies the cartels the financial means to continue their operations.