By Richard Marosi
Los Angeles Times
SAN DIEGO — U.S. authorities said Thursday they have shut down a major cross-border drug tunnel that traffickers had recently completed and equipped with an electric rail and cart system capable of ferrying tons of drugs from Tijuana to San Diego.
The tunnel was discovered Wednesday evening in an industrial park just west of the Otay Mesa port of entry. Authorities arrested three suspects and seized more than eight tons of marijuana and 325 pounds of cocaine in connection with the investigation, which was handled by the multiagency San Diego Tunnel Task Force.
Stretching nearly six football fields in length and featuring lighting and ventilation, the tunnel was the latest in a series of sophisticated underground passageways uncovered in recent years in the area of nondescript warehouses and sprawling industrial parks.
In Tijuana, the tunnel entrance was discovered in a rundown warehouse near the city's airport. Two suspects fled as police and Mexican Army soldiers converged on the site Wednesday evening, according to a Tijuana police news release.
Such tunnel discoveries with enormous drug seizures have become an almost annual occurrence in the fall, a busy time for traffickers because it's harvest time for marijuana in Mexico. Organized crime groups spend millions of dollars financing the construction of the tunnels, hiring diggers who work nonstop to get the drugs flowing.
The task force shut down two major tunnels in the same area in late 2010, and another two in 2011, including one that led to the seizure of more than 32 tons of marijuana, one of the largest drug busts in U.S. history.
“Once again, we’ve succeeded in taking down a smuggling tunnel before it was fully operational,” said John Sandweg, acting director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which heads the task force. “This action is another huge setback for the Mexican cartels, which invest vast amounts of time and money to build them. These criminal organizations should not mistakenly believe tunnels will be their ticket to success.”
Investigators had been staking out the industrial building in San Diego’s Otay Mesa district for several days, intercepting drug loads and studying the traffickers’ operations. One truck leaving the building on Saturday was stopped with three tons of marijuana.
In a nearby warehouse, believed to be a storage facility for the traffickers, authorities found 8,900 pounds of dope ready for shipment. On Wednesday, a van stopped after leaving the warehouse was found to be carrying 325 pounds of cocaine.
The tunnel is the eighth large-scale drug smuggling tunnel discovered in the San Diego area since 2006, according to ICE. In the last five years, federal authorities have detected more than 75 cross- border smuggling tunnels, most of them in California and Arizona.