When federal agents busted a trailer loaded with tons of marijuana, little did they know that the haul would lead them to one of the most high-tech smuggling tunnels they had ever seen. Indeed, its scale and complexity were undeniably impressive.
After 9/11, at a time of heightened security, a specialist taskforce was assembled to crack down on underground drug smuggling between the U.S. and Mexico. The formidable team included officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Border Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Mexican authorities.
Furthermore, in November 2010 the squad had its biggest victory to date. After a month spent tracking suspicious activities at a warehouse in the Otay Mesa neighborhood of San Diego, just across from Tijuana on the Mexican side of the border, the team swooped. And what they discovered was mind-blowing.
The team initially followed a tractor-trailer as it was leaving the warehouse. Following up on a call from ICE agents, officers from the California Highway Patrol stopped the vehicle near Temecula, 60 miles to the north. And inside it they came across 10 tons of cannabis stowed away in cardboard boxes.
Officers then arrested the husband and wife driving the tractor-trailer before turning their attentions back to the warehouse. Moreover, what they were about to find inside was even bigger than the 10-ton haul they’d retrieved earlier.
Officers were soon granted a federal search warrant, which gave them permission to enter the California warehouse. Then, after entering they discovered another 10 to 15 tons of the schedule-1 drug – and it wasn’t long before they worked out how the stash had got here.
Officers came across a secret door in the warehouse, and at its base was the entrance to a tunnel that ran for 1,800 feet into Mexico. This wasn’t, however, just any old hole in the ground; no, the builders of this one had gone all out.
The tunnel dropped 18 feet below ground before heading out towards the Mexican border. And although just large enough for an average adult to squeeze through, the underpass was equipped with vents, lights and, amazingly, a miniature railway.
Before entering any suspicious tunnels, the taskforce sends out specialist robots to survey the scene. And once it’s deemed safe enough to enter, it’s up to agents – themselves specially trained to navigate tiny spaces – to make the claustrophobic crawl themselves.
On the Mexican side, the tunnel ended at a corresponding warehouse in Tijuana. Here, Mexican authorities uncovered a further 4.5 tons of marijuana. And, intriguingly, they had a pretty good idea of who was behind the cross-border smuggling operation.
“Obviously this is a cartel and organized drug smuggling of the highest order,” CNN reported John Morton, ICE’s director, as saying. “They now can’t move that size of drugs without digging a tunnel for 600 yards. It backfired on them.”
Morton reckoned that the smuggling operation had been ongoing for around a month before its discovery by law-enforcement agents. And the officers’ victory had been somewhat unexpected. Not only had they pounced while the tunnel was operational, but the size of the haul was also nothing short of remarkable.
The huge marijuana stash in fact had a street value in the region of $20 million. As a result, this bust will go down as one of the biggest in U.S. drug-enforcement history.
“What’s unusual about this one is the amount of marijuana found as part of this investigation,” ICE spokesperson Lauren Mack told CNN. “We’re not letting our guard down.”
The 30-ton seizure was, in fact, California’s largest marijuana bust on record. Only one other comparable operation in the U.S. has seen a greater return, and that was back in 2008.
According to DEA special agent Ralph W. Partridge, the 2008 bust, which uncovered a 33-ton haul in Oregon, was the most significant in American history. The San Diego seizure wasn’t far off, however.
Looking at the bigger picture, then, tunneling has become the preferred way for gangs to smuggle drugs into the U.S. from Mexico. Indeed, between 2006 and 2010 some 75 underground passageways were discovered, and most were in Arizona and California.
The latest tunnel was, at the time, in the same league as the longest ever found – which, incidentally, also linked Otay Mesa and Tijuana. That one was the length of seven football fields, so around 700 yards total.
“We’ve been enjoying an unprecedented cooperation with Mexican law enforcement in recent years,” Mack explained to CNN. And she added, “So we get a lot of information from the Mexicans, and vice versa.”
More tunnels have, however, been discovered since the 2010 operation. In April 2016, for example, a massive 874-yard underpass was found running between the Mexican border and San Diego. The war on drugs is, it seems, still being waged – and furthermore it’s quite literally being driven underground.