'El Chapo' drilled 56 tunnels in San Diego

The U.S. found 181 tunnels in the border area.
Most of the tunnels are linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. (Photo: OFFICE OF CONTROL OF IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT)
01/08/2015
11:35
Eileen Truax / Los Angeles
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On November 29, 2011, Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Diego, made an announcement that soon would be all over media: The Task Force Investigation of tunnels in that region had arrested six people and seized 32 tons of marijuana during the discovery of a tunnel used for drug trafficking in the U.S.-Mexico border.

The photographs presented by the agency hours later showed the inside of the tunnel: Some 1,870 feet long with electric carts on rails, lighting, wooden floors, a hydraulic lift system, a steel door controlled by a hydraulic mechanism and even a wine cellar.

Mack explained that the underground linked two wineries, one in the city of San Diego and another in Tijuana, Mexico.

Two weeks earlier, on November 15, another tunnel was detected in the area, with 14 tons of cannabis. The sum of both seizures, with a value of $65 million, was one of the highest in the history of the United States.

However, the research and discovery of tunnels was not new practice for the authorities in this border area. The one found in November 2011 was the seventh large scale tunnel located in the San Diego area since 2006.

During the last decade 181 tunnels build for drug traffickers have been discovered in the more than 1,989 miles of border between Mexico and the U.S. Of these, more than 150 are located on the border between California and Baja California, and 56 of them in the border between San Diego County and the cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, Baja California, area controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel.

"From 2006 to date, most of the seizures in the tunnels were made in our area," expressed Lauren Mack those discoveries since 2011. Three weeks have elapsed since the escape of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán from the highest security prison in Mexico, through a tunnel.

In this context, Mack prepared a report with the background of similar architectural structures in the border, which she shared in an exclusive interview with EL UNIVERSAL. The immigration officer is blunt: "In this area during the past 10 years the majority of the tunnels are linked with the Sinaloa Cartel because it is the group that is in power in that area of the Mexican side".

Just yesterday, officers from the Mexican Army found what is presumed to be another "narcotunnel" in Tijuana, a city that is adjacent to San Diego. The entry would be in the cellar of the Hega importing and exporting company, in the area of the Otay crossing station, 1,300 feet away from the U.S. border.

The tunnel boom

On 3 October, 2012, it was revealed that there were 13 federal charges against José Villalobos, alias "Quirino," a 49-year-old identified as a "high-level operator of the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico," who was arrested on February. He was accused of being the mastermind in charge of the construction, financing and operation of the two tunnels found in November 2011. Another of the charges brought against him was conspiracy to distribute and import cannabis. Of the 13 charges, 12 reached the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The U.S. requested his extradition from Mexico.

When the tunnels were discovered in 2011, Derek Brenner, special agent of the research area of the Department of Homeland Security (HSI) in San Diego, said that "considering the level of sophistication involved, the criminal organization responsible for the construction of this tunnel had ambitious plans".  Eleven months later, Brenner announced that such an organization was the Sinaloa Cartel, and recognized the work of the Task Force Investigation of tunnels.

There is a special class of more sophisticated tunnels, built using an advanced technology, the so-called "supertunnels." During the past 10 years, 22 have been found in San Diego, nine of them in working condition at the time of their discovery. Mack said that these are built specifically for the trafficking of drugs, mostly cannabis, although they have found traces of cocaine.

The increase in the construction of these works since 2006 led to the creation of the group specialized in the investigation of tunnels, with representatives of the ICE, HSI, the agency of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Drug Enforcement Administration and the narcotics office of California. The group uses techniques that enable them to detect underground structures, going from monitoring technology to classic detective work. The latter includes the investigation of clues provided by citizens.

In the case of the tunnels detected in 2011, the researchers reported that the finding was the result of a six-month investigation.  The detail that detonated the arrests and the seizure was a trailer that came out of a wine cellar of the American side, in the Otay Mesa area, which was found to be carrying drugs. Hours after six men, all of them Latinos, were arrested.

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