By Michael Thurston
LOS ANGELES – US and Mexican police seized a record drug haul of over 30 tons of marijuana smuggled through a third-of-a-mile long tunnel under their border in southern California, officials said Thursday.
Two people were arrested by agents who uncovered the tunnel – the length of five soccer pitches, and equipped with a rail system, lighting and ventilation – between the Mexican border city of Tijuana and San Diego on the US side.
The discovery comes amid growing concern over violence associated with Mexican cartels smuggling illegal drugs into the lucrative US market, and days after Californians rejected plans to fully legalize pot.
“Today was a bad day for the cartels. This discovery again shows their growing desperation in the face of heightened border security,” said US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton.
“Frustrated by our defenses, they?re literally going underground, but we?re thwarting them there as well,” he added.
ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack added that the seizure was one of the largest in US history, and the largest ever in connection with a cross-border tunnel. She put the value of the drugs seized at 20 million dollars.
“Based upon preliminary indications, authorities believe the passageway was probably completed very recently,” added a statement by the agency.
The 600 yard (548 meter)-long tunnel was discovered after agents tailed a suspicious-looking tractor trailer in a warehouse district in Otay Mesa on the US side of the border.
They arrested the two people in the vehicle and found 10 tons of marijuana in the trailer. They then searched the warehouse from which they had driven, finding a further 16 tons – and discovered the end of the tunnel in a closet.
The tunnel was about four feet in diameter. “It’s too narrow and too shallow to walk through, you have to crawl through,” she said.
Mexican authorities were alerted and rapidly discovered the end of the tunnel on their side of the border, which has long been a major transit point for illegal drugs and immigrants.
The Mexican army said the tunnel’s entrance had been disguised as a factory, and was located some 50 meters (yards) from the border. Mexican soldiers found 4.5 tons of marijuana in 393 packets inside, a military source said.
The discovery was not the first – some 125 tunnels have been found overall, and 75 over the last four years, mostly on the California and Arizona borders with Mexico.
“But very few have been operational. Most of those tunnels were discovered before they were completed,” said the ICE spokeswoman.
The two people arrested on the US side of the border were to be arraigned on drug smuggling charges Thursday, she added. There was no word on arrests on the Mexican side of the border.
The latest seizure comes days after Californian voters rejected a proposal to fully legalize marijuana – a move welcomed by the Mexican and other Latin American governments.
The California proposal would have allowed people aged 21 and over to possess up to one ounce (28 grams) of marijuana and grow up to 25 square feet (2.32 square meter) of pot plants.
More than 28,000 people have died in Mexico in a wave of suspected drug related violence in almost four years, despite the deployment of some 50,000 troops across the country.