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Mexico Finds Unfinished Drug Tunnel to U.S.

June 03, 1993|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA and MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TIJUANA — Mexican police hunting the killers of a Roman Catholic cardinal have discovered a sophisticated cross-border tunnel that drug traffickers were building to smuggle narcotics into the United States, authorities said Wednesday.

The lighted and concrete-reinforced tunnel is strategically located between Tijuana's international airport and the Otay Mesa border crossing. Police sources estimate it was about 100 feet from completion. It originates beneath a warehouse in a Mexican industrial area housing hundreds of U.S.-owned assembly plants and extends almost 1,500 feet north and under the international border, authorities said.

"This would have been major," Jack Hook, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in San Diego, said of the tunnel. "Law enforcement is lucky that it was caught at this point. . . . They could have gotten tons through there without us knowing anything about it."

The attempt to camouflage the movement of narcotics amid trans-border commerce highlights an emerging concern of U.S. officials that Mexican and Colombian drug barons will exploit increased trade under a proposed North American Free Trade Agreement for smuggling purposes.

Investigators believe the multimillion-dollar tunnel was constructed by Mexico's top mafia chief, Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman, the Sinaloa kingpin believed to have been the target in a shootout last week at the Guadalajara airport that killed Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo and six others.

Mexican federal judicial police tracking Guzman and his Tijuana rivals suspected in the cardinal's death made the discovery Monday during an extensive manhunt in this border city. In the last week, they have found at least 15 safehouses with underground chambers and vaults belonging to traffickers and an arsenal of high-powered weapons, including grenade launchers, automatic rifles and night scopes.

Information uncovered at one of the safehouses led investigators to the tunnel--only the second subterranean passageway under the U.S-Mexico border ever discovered.

Police officials believe the tunnel was to connect the warehouse in Tijuana to a second warehouse in Otay Mesa, an active commercial and industrial zone in south San Diego with round-the-clock truck traffic generated largely by the Tijuana assembly plants.

The border location would have provided perfect cover for a high-volume drug shipping operation, officials said.

"On the U.S. side, there are a lot of warehouses, there are trucks coming and going at all hours of the day and night," Hook said. "It would raise the least amount of suspicion for trucks to be coming and going at 2 in the morning. It would have looked like business as usual."

U.S. authorities are investigating the ownership of the U.S. warehouse under construction, although they emphasized they have not confirmed that was the intended termination point of the tunnel. The site has a sign saying it belongs to the Tia Anita Canning Co.

The empty Tijuana warehouse belongs to a Mexican construction company believed to be owned by Guzman, according to a DEA agent familiar with the case.

Mexican police located the tunnel by hammering through the building's concrete floor. They found a hidden basement and a ladder that led 65 feet underground to the tunnel entrance.

Police estimate that construction on the tunnel began at least six months ago and would have been completed in several months.

Construction crews apparently slept and ate in living quarters on the property. Police found a kitchen and mattresses for 20 people.

The workers used air-powered hammers and drilling equipment to cut their way through sandstone, officials said.

The tunnel is about five feet high and three feet wide, with a concrete floor and walls reinforced in sections by wood and concrete. A lighting system had been installed and air-conditioning units in the warehouse pumped oxygen into the hot and dank passage.

There have been no arrests linked to the warehouse, police said, although Mexican federal police led by their national commander, Rodolfo Leon Aragon, continue their weeklong investigation. Several low-level members of trafficking organizations have been arrested, but none of the mafia bosses.

On Tuesday night, Mexican Atty. Gen. Jorge Carpizo MacGregor made a rare appearance on television to appeal to the public for help in capturing those the government believes are responsible for the cardinal's death.

When completed, the Tijuana tunnel could have fueled a surge in the drug supply to the world's largest drug market.

An estimated two-thirds of the cocaine consumed in the United States is shipped through Mexico from South America. Most of that flow passes through Baja California.

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