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Drug Tunnel Discovery Signals New Cartel In Town

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Drug Tunnel Discovery Signals New Cartel In Town

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Drug Tunnel Discovery Signals New Cartel In Town

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Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Federal authorities are questioning suspected drug smugglers to learn more about a tunnel discovered under the U.S.-Mexico border on Thanksgiving Day. It's the second sophisticated smuggling tunnel that agents have found this month between San Diego and Tijuana.

As NPR's John Burnett reports, it's evidence that a new cartel has muscled into Tijuana.

JOHN BURNETT: The tunnel they 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 in 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 they've come across, says Mike Unzueta. He's special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in San Diego. He says losing the tunnel is bad for cartel business.

Mr. MIKE UNZUETA (Special Agent In Charge of Homeland Security): I think it can't but hurt. 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.

BURNETT: Acting on a tip, 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.

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

David Shirk is director of the Trans-Border Institute of the University of San Diego.

Mr. DAVID SHIRK (Director, Trans-Border Institute, University of San Diego): 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.

BURNETT: 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 through brutality and negotiation, and now have a solid foothold in Tijuana, says David Shirk.

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

BURNETT: 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.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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