Drug Tunnel Discovery Signals New Cartel In Town

The tunnel discovered on Thanksgiving Day

A Mexican soldier patrols the tunnel discovered on Thanksgiving Day at a warehouse in Tijuana. Francisco Vega/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Francisco Vega/AFP/Getty Images

Federal authorities are questioning suspected drug smugglers to learn more about a tunnel trafficking operation uncovered on Thanksgiving Day. It's the second sophisticated smuggling tunnel between Tijuana and San Diego that agents have discovered this month, and it's more evidence that a new cartel has muscled into Tijuana.

The tunnel found Thursday is nearly a half-mile long, extending from under the kitchen floor of a house in Tijuana to a pair of warehouses in the Otay Mesa industrial district of San Diego.

It has ventilation, electricity, a cinder-block entryway and a rail system for a small cart to move drugs into the U.S. Of the 76 cross-border drug tunnels discovered in the past four years, the Thanksgiving Day tunnel is one of the most elaborate officials have come across, according to Mike Unzueta, special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in San Diego. He says losing the tunnel is bad for cartel business.

"It can't but hurt," he says. "Potentially, we're looking at a year or longer to construct something with this level of sophistication, and upwards of a million dollars in terms of the cost." Unzueta said smugglers hand-dug the channel in hard clay soil with an electric jack-hammer.

More Tunnels, More Tactics

Acting on a tip Thursday, federal agents followed a tractor-trailer from the warehouse to a border patrol checkpoint. Investigators found 20 tons of pot and arrested three men in the U.S.; the Mexican military arrested five more. The arrests led to the discovery of the tunnel.

Federal agents discovered a similarly constructed tunnel on Nov. 2, connecting warehouses in Mexico and the U.S. They recovered more than 30 tons of cannabis in that bust.

A Mexican soldier

A Mexican soldier peers into the entrance of the tunnel from a Tijuana kitchen. Francisco Vega/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Francisco Vega/AFP/Getty Images

"The more we have tried to fortify and beef up border security, the more we have driven cartels underground, or out into the ocean, or more ingenious, clandestine methods of moving products across the border," says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute of the University of San Diego.

Sinaloans Expand Their Turf

Federal investigators believe both underground passageways were under the control of the Sinaloa Cartel, which is run by Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, the world's most wanted drug lord.

What's important is that the Tijuana smuggling corridor has traditionally been controlled by the Tijuana Cartel, which is run by the Arellano Felix family. The recent tunnel discoveries confirm that the Sinaloans have expanded their turf — by brutality and negotiation — and now have a solid foothold in Tijuana, Shirk says.

"The tunnel itself is not demonstrating any new characteristics — it's big, it's loaded with marijuana, and we've seen that before," Shirk says. "But what we haven't seen before this close to the Tijuana corridor is a Sinaloa operation of this magnitude."

The victory celebration among U.S. cops may be short-lived. If the past is a guide, Mexican drug smugglers will simply start digging new tunnels.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.