The drug tunnel began in a pink and orange two-story house in Tijuana whose front yard had a half-full kiddie pool.
After zig-zagging underground for more than 800 yards, the tunnel ended across the border in San Diego, terminating in a narrow opening in the dirt of an industrial yard stacked with wooden pallets.
US officials on Wednesday said they seized the tunnel as smugglers attempted to move cocaine and marijuana through it beginning on April 12. Authorities captured a total of 2,242 pounds of cocaine — about $22 million worth — and 14,030 pounds of marijuana (1,600 of which was found in the tunnel, packaged in 68 bales) after an eight month–long sting operation. Six people were arrested and are facing federal drug-smuggling charges.
Officials called it the largest cocaine seizure ever associated with a California-Mexico cross-border drug tunnel. They declined to say what drug organization was suspected of building it, but the Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is known for its elaborate tunnels. The one announced on Wednesday featured electricity, ventilation, and a rail line, making it similar to the tunnel Guzman used to escape from his shower stall in Mexico's Altiplano prison in July 2015.
The house in Tijuana where the tunnel began. (Photo by Daniel Hernandez/VICE News)
The extremely narrow tunnel — only three feet wide — was unusual among the 75 drug tunnels discovered on the US-Mexico border in the last five years. Its US opening was not inside a home or warehouse but outdoors, where officials said a Dumpster was stationed over it to move drugs from underground into a waiting truck. "We Buy Pallets," read a sign on the fence outside.
"It's a hole in the ground, it's a rabbit hole," US Attorney Laura Duffy said at the site on Marconi Drive, amid the industrial warehouses of San Diego's Otay Mesa neighborhood. "Put this in the playbook for possibility."
The operation involved officials from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Border Patrol, the US attorney's office in San Diego, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and a lesser-known agency called Homeland Security Investigations.
All the agencies were on hand Wednesday at the Otay Mesa yard, stressing the "great" working relationship they have with their Mexican counterparts in the fight against drug smuggling. Mexican officials, however, remained silent about the tunnel Wednesday; the Mexican attorney general's office had not released a statement by the afternoon.
No police or Mexican military were guarding the Tijuana house Wednesday, which is located just a few blocks away from the Otay Mesa international crossing in a dusty and dense neighborhood across from a run-down park. Its windows appeared to be shuttered.
"They were there until Friday," said next-door shop owner Jose Luis Moreno. "Young couples, with kids."
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