SAN DIEGO — Federal authorities are declaring another victory in their war against drug tunnels this week after shutting down what they say was one of the most sophisticated underground tunnels for drug smuggling ever discovered.
The tunnel had just been completed, connecting a warehouse in Tijuana with a building in San Diego’s Otay Mesa industrial park. It was the length of nearly six football fields, or one-third of a mile. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement News release reported that the tunnel was equipped with lighting, ventilation and an electric rail system.
Upon shutting down the tunnel, authorities also seized 17,292 pounds of marijuana – that’s more then eight tons - and 325 pounds of cocaine. The drugs have an estimated street value of nearly $12 million.
Authorities say this is the first time cocaine has been seized in a drug smuggling tunnel operation in San Diego.
Authorities say the believe the tunnel is the work of the Sinaloa drug cartel, and is the fifth so-called “super-tunnel” discovered and shut down since 2010, according to U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy:
The cartels have spent years and tens of millions of dollars trying in vain to create an underworld of secret passageways to move huge quantities of drugs at will. We have a message for the builders, financiers and operators of these sophisticated tunnels: if you continue to go underground, you will find your world collapsing around you.
The investigations and arrests were the result of the work of multiple federal agencies as well as a group known as the San Diego Tunnel Task force, created five years ago and led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That group was singled out for praise by DEA San Diego Special Agent in Charge William R. Sherman:
This is another example of the outstanding work of the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, Their level of expertise and the myriad of investigative and detection resources they have developed have made it nearly impossible for the cartels to successfully tunnel into San Diego County. This is a tremendous law enforcement success and represents a complete and utter failure of the criminals who are attempting to poison our streets with illegal narcotics.
The operation reportedly involved intensive surveillance and weeks of investigation. Sandra Dibble of the UT San Diego reports the investigation began with a tip from a confidential informant earlier this month to ICE. According to a complaint filed in federal court Thursday, the informant told agents about a man named Jose Gabriel Orendain who had obtained four demolition drills used to build a tunnel. Authorities instigated surveillance of Orendain and learned about warehouses in Tijuana and Chula Vista.
As detailed in the news release, the crackdown began last Saturday with a box truck under surveillance was pulled over in Chula Vista, south of San Diego, for traffic violations. Three tons of marijuana were found inside. Search warrants were executed late Wednesday at the Otay Mesa building believed to be the tunnel’s U.S. entrance and at warehouse in Chula Vista. At those warehouses, large amounts of marijuana and cocaine were discovered.
The UT reports that three suspects arrested during the operation were identified in a U.S. District court complaint filed Thursday. Jose Arturo Mendoza and Juan Pena Osuna are being held on charges of possession to distribute cocaine. Ramon Ramos Romero was charged with possession and the intent to distribute marijuana.
Authorities say they have comprehensive coverage of the border area and are confident that tunnels can not be successfully used without discovery. In fact this week’s shutdown is the eighth sophisticated drug tunnel found in the San Diego-Tijuana region since 2006, and one of nearly 75 found up and down the border since 2008.
The Otay Mesa cross-border region has seen the most tunnel activity – it is popular, authorities say, because the soil is easy to dig and can withstand the construction. In addition, the warehouse districts on both sides of the border are easy cover for drug operations.
Despite authorities assurances that they are essentially winning the battle against drug tunnels, there is evidence that the amount of hard narcotics, including methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine, crossing the Southern California border is on the upswing. Seizures have increased significantly, which leads analysts to believe more is also getting through.