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Border Tunnel Is Called 'Amazing'

The 2,400-foot-long subterranean passage is likely the work of a drug cartel, officials say.

January 27, 2006|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A cross-border tunnel spanning nearly half a mile from a nondescript industrial building in Tijuana to an Otay Mesa warehouse is believed to be the longest illegal tunnel ever discovered along the Southwest border, federal authorities said Thursday.

Stacked near the tunnel -- a deep passage equipped with lighting, ventilation and a pulley system -- authorities found more than two tons of marijuana. The tunnel is 2,400 feet long, roughly the length of eight football fields, and roomy enough for people to run through.

"This one is just absolutely amazing. It's just huge," said Michael Unzueta, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. "It really looks like a professionally done mine shaft."

U.S. and Mexican authorities, who have unearthed several tunnels in recent years, have made no arrests and have secured the tunnel's entry and exit as investigators continue to gather evidence and check out the operators of the buildings.

Authorities said the tunnel was likely the work of a powerful drug cartel, perhaps the Tijuana-based Arellano-Felix organization.

It is unknown how long the tunnel has been operational, they said.

Soil and air samples are being analyzed to determine if anything besides drugs was transported through the passage, including weapons.

Authorities have long been concerned that such subterranean passages could be used to pass high-powered weaponry or terrorists into the country.

Since 1990, about three dozen tunnels have been discovered along the border, most of them crudely built but many exhibiting impressive feats of engineering.

Entrances to tunnels have been hidden under lift-up staircases, fireplaces and pool tables. Some tunnels connected to storm drains.

Small cart and rail systems have been installed in the tunnels to haul dirt or drugs.

Like many other tunnel discoveries, authorities found the Otay Mesa tunnel through a tip from an informant. The San Diego tunnel task force handling the investigation includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Mexican authorities, after waiting more than one day for a search warrant, on Wednesday raided a small warehouse near the Tijuana airport.

Agents then entered the tunnel and ran its length into the U.S., emerging from underneath a tile-covered floor in an office inside a warehouse on Siempre Viva Road.

The tunnel extends northeast from the border, going underneath two roads and a large vacant lot before reaching the warehouse.

A pulley and gurney system was used to lower the contraband down a 50-foot shaft into the tunnel on the Mexican side. A pumping system kept water from accumulating at the bottom of the tunnel, which reaches as much as 80 feet below ground level.

John S. Fernandes, the special agent in charge of the DEA office in San Diego, said the tunnel had all the hallmarks of an organized crime operation.

"The sophistication of this tunnel equals the sophistication of the criminal organization," he said.

Agents who descended into the tunnel described the experience as startling.

"It's like being in a mine shaft or a cave," Unzueta said. "For anyone who suffers from claustrophobia, this is the last place you want to be."

This month alone, four tunnels have been discovered in the San Diego area. Authorities believe it could be a sign that stricter border enforcement is forcing trafficking organizations to go underground.

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