Tunnel Found on Mexican Border

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 26 -- U.S. and Mexican authorities have discovered an elaborate tunnel that stretches the length of eight football fields connecting Mexico and the United States and was apparently used for drug trafficking, authorities said Thursday.

The tunnel, unearthed Wednesday, runs from a warehouse in Tijuana and surfaces in the United States under an abandoned warehouse west of the Otay Mesa port of entry. Mexican authorities announced that they had seized about two tons of marijuana on the Mexican end, and experts said the passageway bore all the hallmarks of an operation by a major drug cartel.

"This is a very, very sophisticated tunnel," Michael Unzueta, special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego, said in a telephone interview. "Whether they are designed to smuggle drugs, people, weapons or other contraband, these tunnels pose a threat to our nation's security."

Unzueta said investigators were tipped off to the existence of the tunnel on the Mexican side and passed the information to Mexican law enforcement, which obtained a search warrant for the warehouse in Tijuana on Wednesday. Mexican authorities allowed reporters into the warehouse that night; they reported that they saw about 300 bundles of marijuana stacked more than five feet high.

Unzueta described the shaft as technically advanced, with electricity, a ventilation system, pumps to remove groundwater, cement flooring for traction in steep areas, and wood roofing to bolster the walls and ceiling. It had a clearance, he said, of nearly six feet and was about five feet wide.

At 2,400 feet, the tunnel is the longest and most sophisticated of the 21 underground passageways linking the United States and Mexico that have been discovered since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when investigations and enforcement were beefed up in the region. Unzueta said most of the tunnels have been located in the San Diego area because the composite soil of that region is ideal for such work. From 1990 to 2001, 15 tunnels were unearthed.

Unzueta said that a year ago, agents from his agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Border Patrol unit formed the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, with the aim of unearthing the networks.

Federal agents have concluded that drug traffickers and smugglers of illegal immigrants have been heading underground to escape tighter enforcement along the border. Customs officials announced this week that drug seizures at California border crossings rose 24 percent in the past fiscal year. More than 127 tons of drugs were seized, the vast majority of that marijuana, in the year ending Sept. 30.

Since Jan. 9, authorities in the region have uncovered three other tunnels. Those were far from sophisticated -- the kind that agents call "gopher holes," being essentially shallow tubes connecting Mexico and the United States. In one discovery of a 30-foot-long tunnel with an opening of two feet square, federal agents found prospective illegal immigrants were still inside, although they succeeded in turning around and inching back into Mexico.

Law enforcement cooperation between the United States and Mexico has not always been good. Earlier this week, Texas state police were stopped along the border from seizing three sport-utility vehicles by men in military-style uniforms, who were armed with automatic weapons and driving a Humvee. The SUVs were apparently carrying marijuana.

Texas law enforcement officials speculated that the men were Mexican soldiers. On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza issued a statement asking the Mexican government to "fully investigate" the border incident. Mexico's top diplomat, Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez, countered Thursday that the men could just as easily have been U.S. troops.

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