On April 21, federal officials announced they had discovered the longest cross-border drug tunnel between California and Mexico they had ever come across.
Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Timothy Salel said the tunnel measures 874 yards, more than eight and a half football fields, between a home in Tijuana and a commercial lot in San Diego that purported to sell wooden pallets.
Though only about three feet wide, the San Diego drug tunnel was outfitted with rail tracks, a ventilation system, and a large elevator leading from the tunnel to a closet inside the Tijuana residence. The discovery resulted in the seizure of more than a ton of cocaine and seven tons of marijuana.
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Drug tunnels have been a popular smuggling option for Mexican drug cartels in the last decade. They are expensive, labor-intensive, and time-consuming to dig out. They can take as long as a year to complete and cost up to $1 million or more; however, they are also very difficult to detect. Since 2006, U.S. authorities have discovered roughly 80 drug tunnels along the U.S.-Mexico border, with most of them located in California near the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry and in Arizona near the Nogales port of entry. These locations are popular due to geology that is conducive to tunnel construction and existing underground infrastructure that is easy for smugglers to tap into.
Who is Using the San Diego Drug Tunnel?
The tunnels – including the San Diego drug tunnel – are used almost exclusively by cartels to smuggle illegal drugs into the United States. Many people are under the assumption that immigrants enter the U.S. illegally this way, but that is a big misconception. The locations of a cartel’s tunnels are a highly prized secret. The more people who know about a tunnel’s existence and location, the more liabilities a cartel has. Tunnel owners have been known to confine the builders they hire so they don’t reveal tunnel details to authorities.
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One of the lead agencies with regards to tunnel discovery is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and they have established a Tunnel Task Force in the San Diego area. ICE acknowledges that tunnel discovery isn’t an exact science, and a considerable amount of luck is involved. Tunnel detection technology has progressed considerably in the last five years, with most of the platforms based on a seismic sensor foundation. However, it has been very difficult to develop reliable sensors at a reasonable cost that can detect tunnel construction and activity across the wide variety of geology along the 2,000 mile-long southwest border. Approximately half of the drug tunnels ICE has uncovered were found through anonymous tips, and some Border Patrol agents will say the best way to find a drug tunnel entrance is to run over it with a truck.
Tunnel was ‘Ingenious’
While drug tunnels have many common features, U.S. authorities have noted some significant differences in this most recent discovery. U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Laura Duffy explained that although the interior of the San Diego drug tunnel was very sophisticated, the exit was simply a “rabbit hole.” She told reporters, “Just the whole way that it comes up and that it comes up out right into the open, it is a bit ingenious, I think, and it’s something completely different than what we’ve seen.” U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agent in Charge William Sherman added, “A 2,000-pound cocaine seizure tells DEA and our law enforcement partners that these groups are having to resort to unsophisticated tunnels to try and push through what amounts to a $22 million loss just in cocaine alone.”
Now that this tunnel has been rendered useless to cartel smugglers, U.S. authorities will eventually seal it by flooding it with concrete—sometimes at a cost of up to $300,000. While one avenue of entry into the U.S. for illegal drugs has been closed, due to their value and ease of concealment, it is likely U.S. authorities will come across another record-breaking border tunnel in the not-too-distant future.