Tijuana border

Border between the United States (left) and Mexico,
with Tijuana on the right of the fence/photo courtesy U.S. Border Patrol/DHS

Major Drug Cartel Tunnel Found Near San Diego

| published October 23, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor


Police and drug agents in Mexico have discovered an elaborate, sophisticated tunnel stretching from suburban Tijuana into the U.S. city of San Diego. The tunnel includes ventilation systems, electric and battery-powered lighting, metal and wooden beams to support the roof and to inhibit collapse, and a small rail line—partially complete—designed to ferry drugs in large, wheeled baskets.

The tunnel is an astounding 2,600 in length, and law enforcement officials in both Mexico and the U.S. believe the tunnel is the work of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel, headed by fugitive drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The Tijuana-to-San Diego tunnel’s construction and sophisticated design is similar to the immense tunnel used by Guzman in his daring escape from the maximum security prison near Toluca in July of this year. But unlike the Toluca tunnel, which was narrow in places, the San Diego tunnel is relatively wide. The tunnel also bears a close resemblance to other tunneling operations used by the Sinaloa Cartel for smuggling drugs and for human trafficking.

Though the Mexican authorities have examined the tunnel and have reported it to U.S. law enforcement, it is not clear from DEA and FBI reports that U.S. officials have located the exact location of the tunnel’s American portal, presumably inside San Diego. And pending more detailed investigations by the DEA, FBI and Border Control agents, it is also not clear that the tunnel has yet been used for illegal activity, or if it was in the final stages of construction.

El Chapo and his vast organization have been using tunnels for several years, and have raised the bar for what was once a crude art form to a high level of sophistication and design. According to some estimates, the Sinaloa Cartel rakes-in hundreds of millions each year in cash—the majority of it from drug smuggling, human trafficking, for-hire illegal border crossings, and money laundering. The Sinaloa Cartel is also diverse from a business standpoint, sending a variety of drugs across the border—cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines, heroine. Authorities also believe the tunnel is used for the shipment of counterfeit products into the United States.

Mexican authorities discovered the tunnel during a routine drug raid prompted by tips from a group of a dozen detained members of a rival drug cartel known as the Jalisco New Generation Group, which controls many areas of the Pacific coast and extreme western areas of Mexico. The Jalisco based group sometimes cooperates with the Sinaloa Cartel on illegal operations, especially where manpower and expenses can be easily shared, and profits divided.

Based on the tips, scores of heavily-armed Mexican police and federal agents arrived, but there was no gunfire and little resistance. Members of both cartels were apparently caught unaware of the raid, and did not have time to prepare for a fight. Police arrested about 20 people and seized millions of dollars’ worth of drugs—mostly marijuana and cocaine—which had been carefully divided and wrapped in colored plastic and clear packing tape. Mexican police say that the raid netted 873 small packages of drugs.

During the raid, police discovered the entrance to the tunnel. U.S. law enforcement in San Diego are apparently searching for the location of the American entrance to the tunnel, likely to be found in one of the large warehouse districts along the border between the two countries.

Though U.S. officials deploy teams using sophisticated, high tech equipment to search into the ground for signs of tunnels, even the vest electronic tools—devices which can detect seismic activity, acoustic disturbances, magnetic irregularities (often caused by electrical lines and heavy power tools with motors), and anomalies in soil and clay density—can only penetrate downward to a limited range. The tunnel engineers who work for the Mexican drug cartels are aware of those limitations on detection, and adjust accordingly, often by constructing tunnels deep enough to evade electronic detection.

Though the cost of constructing such tunnels can be vast, the business advantages are clear considering the alternatives. The U.S. Border Patrol says tunneling by cartels is now the preferred form of distribution into the U.S.

“It is often a simple price-performance trade-off,” according to an article posted on the website USBorderPatrol.com, “If the smuggler has a million pounds of drugs to move…then a tunnel can be a low cost solution.”

“Border tunnels,” the statement says, “are constructed because it is far more efficient to spend weeks or months building a tunnel to transport some amount of contraband, than to risk sending that same amount of contraband on the surface, where it might easily be detected.”

On both the U.S. and Mexican side of the border near San Diego and Tijuana, warehouses and distribution centers proliferate. The vast majority of these buildings house legitimate business operations, including the legal and entirely routine business of shipping food and other products back and forth between the U.S. and all of Central America. U.S. grocery stores, in particular, import billions of dollars’ worth of food from south of the border every year—from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Belize. Food and other products not transported by ship must move by truck or rail to the border. Both Tijuana and San Diego have thriving warehouse districts, where trucks, vans and rail cars move in large numbers, every day of the week, and around the clock. Heavy construction in areas along both sides of the border also makes it easy for drug smugglers to maintain operations while going largely unnoticed.

These warehouse districts, which in many cases are constructed to within a few hundred feet of the border, make for excellent cover for the cartels and their billion-dollar-a-year smuggling operations. In May of this year, border agents in California discovered an elaborate tunnel connecting two warehouses just west of the San Ysidro border checkpoint after a small sinkhole grew suddenly larger, prompting a massive collapse.

Like the tunnel found this week, it contained ventilation systems, electrical wiring, lighting, and a rail system for moving products easily. It also employed pneumatic lifts and forklifts at either end, and by some FBI and DEA estimates, had been in use for about one year.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Mexican Officials: We Were Warned of Guzman Escape; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; July 17, 2015.

Once Upon (This) Time in Mexico; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 29, 2014.