Temecula pot bust leads investigators to drug tunnel from Mexico
11:04 PM PST on Friday, November 26, 2010
An almost 14-ton marijuana bust in Temecula on Thursday led federal authorities to discover a sophisticated drug tunnel between San Diego County and Mexico.
Temecula Border Patrol agents seized the drugs after stopping a big rig on Interstate 15. In the ensuing investigation, four more tons of pot were seized on a ranch in northern Mexico and three tons were found inside the tunnel, while eight people in two countries were arrested, according to a report from the San Diego Tunnel Task Force.
It was the second time this month that a Temecula bust led to a search in the same Otay Mesa industrial center, and then to the discovery of a drug tunnel.
Both tunnels are believed to be the work of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, headed by that country's most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, said Mike Unzueta, head of investigations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.
"We think ultimately they are controlled by the same overall cartel but that the tunnels were being managed and run independently by different cells operating within the same organization," Unzueta said.
Working off a tip that came out of a large drug bust in San Bernardino County in June, the San Diego Tunnel Task Force began conducting surveillance on the Otay Mesa warehouse complex, said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
On Thursday, agents with the tunnel task force -- made up of the U.S. Border Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- followed the big rig up Interstate 15 from a warehouse and requested Temecula Border Patrol agents to stop it for inspection, according to the task force report.
The search of the tractor-trailer revealed 27,600 pounds of marijuana. Border Patrol agents arrested the driver, who was not identified, on suspicion of drug smuggling.
Agents then searched the warehouse where the truck originated and discovered a 90-foot-deep, half-mile-long drug tunnel that ran from an industrial complex to a stucco home in Tijuana. The home was attached to a garage large enough to accept deliveries from big rigs.
The tunnel had a pushcart rail system and was outfitted with advanced electrical and ventilation systems. Its walls were supported with wood and cinder blocks.
Tunnel task force officials described it as more sophisticated than the tunnel found earlier this month, which ran parallel to Thursday's tunnel and had entrances to two Otay Mesa warehouses 800 feet apart. That was discovered Nov. 2 in a search after Temecula Border Patrol agents stopped a big rig carrying 10 tons of marijuana.
U.S. authorities do not know how long the latest tunnel had been in operation.
On Thursday afternoon, U.S. authorities contacted the Mexican military, which searched the ranch in northern Mexico where more marijuana was found. Mexican authorities arrested five people, according to tunnel task force officials.
In addition to the truck driver, U.S. authorities arrested two men in El Cajon who were seen at the Otay Mesa warehouse.
Unzueta said investigators began to look into several warehouses in the Otay Mesa industrial center on a tip that emerged from a June drug bust by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
Fernando Luevano, 32, a Los Angeles semi driver, was stopped on Interstate 10 in Rancho Cucamonga hauling 19 tons of marijuana, 2,700 pounds of cocaine and 67 pounds of methamphetamine worth an estimated $45 million. Luevano had come north on Interstate 15 and was thought to be trying to leave the state.
Including Thursday's bust, more than 75 border drug-smuggling tunnels have been discovered in the past four years, mostly in California and Arizona.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach John Asbury at 951-763-3451 or jasbury@PE.com