Six football field cross-border tunnel length found connecting Tijuana, San Diego

US authorities on Monday announced the discovery of a major drug smuggling tunnel – stretching the length of six football fields – from Mexico to a warehouse in an industrial area in the US

The Tijuana to San Diego secret passage had rail and ventilation systems, electricity and reinforced walls, authorities said. It was discovered near the Otay Mesa border crossing in San Diego, in an area where more than a dozen other elaborate tunnels have been found over the past two decades.

US authorities said it was not known how long the tunnel had been in operation and what amount, if any, of drugs had slipped through undetected. They seized 1,762 pounds of cocaine, 165 pounds of meth and 3.5 pounds of heroin in connection with the investigation.

Six people, ranging in age from 31 to 55, were charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine. All are residents of Southern California.

The tunnel is in one of the most heavily fortified sections of the border, illustrating the boundaries of the border walls. While walls are considered effective against small, crudely constructed tunnels known as “gopher holes,” they are no match for more sophisticated passages that run deeper underground.

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The latest passage discovered Friday ran a third of a mile to Tijuana. It was four feet in diameter and about six stories deep.

The nature of the drugs seized could signal a departure from the multi-ton shipments of marijuana often found in discoveries before California legalized recreational cannabis in 2019.

Hard drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl are typically smuggled out of Mexico through official border crossings because their small size and lack of odor make them difficult to detect. But tunnels offer smugglers the advantage of being able to transport huge loads at lightning speed.

The tunnel exited the United States at a nondescript warehouse called “Amistad Park” on a street busy with large semi-trailers during the day but quiet at night. On Monday, armed guards guarded a small shaft with a ladder leading down into the tunnel.

Police officers stand at the opening of a cross-border tunnel May 16, 2022 between Tijuana and the San Diego area.
Police officers stand at the opening of a cross-border tunnel May 16, 2022 between Tijuana and the San Diego area.Elliot Splits/AP

After staking out a home recently used for drug stashes, officers began stopping vehicles that had been parked there or at a warehouse near the border and pushed open boxes of cocaine, according to a federal criminal complaint filed in San Diego.

They searched the properties and found no other drugs in the warehouse, but a tunnel opening carved into the cement floor, federal prosecutors said.

Authorities have found about 15 elaborate tunnels along the California-Mexico border since 2006.

Many tunnels, including the one announced Monday, are located in San Diego’s Otay Mesa industrial area, where clayey soil is conducive to digging and warehouses provide cover.

The cross-border passages date back to the early 1990s and were primarily used for smuggling tons of marijuana. The US Drug Enforcement Administration said in 2020 that they are generally found in California and Arizona and are linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.

Authorities declined to link the latest tunnel to any particular cartel. They claimed victory despite not knowing how long it had been in service.

“There’s no light at the end of this narco tunnel,” said Randy Grossman, US Attorney for the Southern District of California. “We will take out any underground smuggling routes we find to prevent illegal drugs from reaching our streets and destroying our families and communities.”

Federal law requires US authorities to fill the US side of tunnels with concrete after they are discovered.

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