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Mexico border tunnel suspects charged

Arrested at the entry to the passageway, the eight men accused of smuggling may include an L.A. gang member.

September 17, 2008|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

MEXICALI, MEXICO — Eight men arrested on suspicion of constructing a drug tunnel have been formally charged with racketeering and smuggling, Mexican state and federal authorities say.

The men, one of whom was identified as a suspected Los Angeles-area gang member, were arrested this month inside a small house where the well-constructed passageway began. The tunnel, equipped with ventilation, electricity and a rail-and-cart system to ferry material and dirt, stretched 150 yards, ending within feet of the California border.

Mexican authorities say the sophisticated design suggests that a major drug cartel financed the project.

Drug trafficking in Mexicali is controlled by the Sinaloa-based cartel led by Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, but authorities have yet to determine whether the group was responsible.

The tunnel appeared destined for a quiet neighborhood in the Imperial Valley city of Calexico. In recent years, organized-crime groups have tried to build at least seven tunnels in the Calexico-Mexicali area, taking advantage of flat terrain and dense cross-border neighborhoods.

The tunnels, which can cost $1 million, are closely guarded secrets that often enjoy protection by local police.

In this case, Baja California state preventive police raided the home after neighbors reported suspicious late-night activity, Juan Miguel Guillen, director of the force, said in a recent interview.

The suspects, most of whom came from distant Mexican states, told authorities they were ordered to stay in the house and work round-the-clock. One of the men had a tattoo from a Southern California gang, Guillen said.

The men's only contact with outsiders was a weekly visit from a man who brought food, supplies and their $500 weekly pay. The man wore a mask to hide his identity, Guillen said.

The men are being held in a state prison near Mexicali.

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richard.marosi@latimes.com

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