Agents find pot-filled Mexico-U.S. tunnel

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Federal agents have located a 2,400-foot tunnel, filled with marijuana, that connects warehouses in Tijuana, Mexico, to San Diego — the largest and most sophisticated illegal cross-border underpass authorities said they’ve ever found.

Equipped with a pulley and ventilation system, the tunnel is six feet wide and 8 to 12 feet high. It has a cement floor and lights on its walls, said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman Garrison K. Courtney.

“Whether they are designed to smuggle drugs, people, weapons or other contraband, these tunnels pose a threat to our nation’s security,” said Michael Unzueta, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigations in San Diego.

The tunnel’s discovery Wednesday prompted the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego to open a criminal investigation, said Lauren Mack, an ICE spokeswoman. ICE is a member of the San Diego Tunnel Task Force with the DEA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Since the September 11 attacks, federal authorities have discovered more than 20 cross-border tunnels along the U.S.-Mexico border in California and Arizona. Authorities said they were unsure how long the tunnel had been in operation. They also said they did not know what drug organization might have used it.

Mr. Courtney said the tunnel originates 85 feet under a warehouse about 150 yards south of the border in Mexico, near the Tijuana airport, and surfaces about a half-mile north of the border in an abandoned warehouse in Otay Mesa.

Otay Mesa, a community within the City of San Diego that was developed as an industrial area in 1985 as a result of the creation of the Otay Mesa port of entry, has become California’s largest commercial land border port and is one of the busiest commercial land border crossings in the United States.

Based on leads provided by the task force, Mr. Courtney said federal police in Mexico found the tunnel after obtaining a warrant Wednesday night to search the Tijuana warehouse. Mexican authorities said the two tons of marijuana were stacked in nearly 300 bales.

Mexican authorities said a metal ladder was used to gain entry to the packed-earth tunnel.

In July 2003, members of the Tijuana-based Arellano-Felix Organization were indicted for conducting an illegal enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity, conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine and marijuana, and money laundering.

After a request by the DEA, the State Department issued rewards totaling $16 million for information leading to the arrest of five leaders of the organization who remain at large: Javier Arellano-Felix, Eduardo Arellano-Felix, Manuel Aguirre-Galindo, Gustavo Rivera-Martinez and Gilberto Higuera-Guerrero.

In May 1993, a 1,450-foot tunnel was located in the same area of Otay Mesa, although authorities said at the time that it was unfinished.

The tunnel task force uses an array of high-tech equipment and intelligence information to pinpoint the locations of underground passageways along the border.

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