US authorities on Monday announced the discovery of a major drug smuggling tunnel, which is the length of six football fields, from Mexico to a warehouse in a US industrial zone.
The secret passage from Tijuana to San Diego featured 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 sophisticated tunnels have been found in the last two decades.
US authorities said it was unknown how long the tunnel had been running and how much, if any, drugs passed through undetected. They seized 1,762 pounds of cocaine, 165 pounds of methamphetamine and 3.5 pounds of heroin in connection with the investigation.
Six people, ages 31 to 55, were charged with conspiring to distribute cocaine. They are all residents of Southern California.
The tunnel is on one of the most heavily fortified stretches of the border, illustrating the limitations of border walls. While considered effective against small, crudely constructed tunnels called “gopher holes,” the walls are no match for the more sophisticated passageways that run deeper underground.
The latest passage, discovered Friday, ran a third of a mile to Tijuana. It was 4 feet in diameter and about six stories deep.
The type of drugs seized may indicate a shift from multi-ton loads of marijuana often found in discoveries before California legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2019.
Hard drugs, such as heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl, are often smuggled through official border crossings from Mexico because their small size and lack of odor make them difficult to detect. But the tunnels give 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 that is busy with large semi-trucks during the day but quiet at night. On Monday, armed guards guarded a small shaft with a ladder leading down into the tunnel.
After surveilling a home that was recently used to stash drugs, officials began stopping traffic from vehicles that had been there or in a warehouse near the border, finding boxes filled with cocaine, according to a federal criminal complaint filed in San Diego.
They searched the properties and found no other drugs in the warehouse, but did find a tunnel dug through the cement floor, federal prosecutors said.
Authorities have found about 15 sophisticated tunnels on California’s border with Mexico since 2006.
Many tunnels, including the one announced Monday, are in San Diego’s Otay Mesa industrial area, where clay soil is conducive to digging and warehouses provide cover.
Cross-border passages date back to the early 1990s and have been used primarily to smuggle multi-ton loads of marijuana. The US Drug Enforcement Administration said in 2020 that they are usually found in California and Arizona and are associated with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.
Authorities refused to link the latest tunnel to any specific cartel. They claimed victory despite not knowing how long it had been in operation.
“There is no light at the end of this drug tunnel anymore,” said Randy Grossman, US Attorney for the Southern District of California. “We will take down every underground smuggling route we find to prevent illicit drugs from reaching our streets and destroying our families and communities.”
By federal law, US authorities must fill the US side of the tunnels with concrete after they are discovered.