Federal authorities raided a U.S.-Mexico tunnel on Wednesday as a part of a 16-month investigation that led to 4 arrests and seizure of just under 3,000 pounds of marijuana.
The tunnel runs about 415 yards from a restaurant in Mexicali, Mexico and ends in the living room of a three-bedroom house in a residential area of Calexico, CA , a border city east of San Diego.
This is the first "highly sophisticated and operational" tunnel discovered in Calexico in a decade, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI), which ran the operation.
This is also the first time that drug traffickers are known to have purchased property and built a house for the sole purpose of hiding a drug tunnel in the area, said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Laura Duffy.
"I’d emphasize that our investigation in this case is still very much ongoing, but preliminarily we believe the shuttering of this latest sophisticated smuggling tunnel has dealt a serious blow,” said Dave Shaw, special agent in charge for HSI San Diego in a statement.
The alleged traffickers scouted properties in the area before selecting the empty lot. The property sale was finalized in April 2015 for $240,000, according to ICE.
Around 6 a.m. this morning approximately 30 agents with HSI’s Special Response Teams raided the tunnel, taking the defendants into custody.
The front room of the house had a 3 foot-wide hole that lead to a shaft, which descended around 32 feet underground, connecting to the tunnel. The tunnel had lighting, electricity and a rail system.
Plastic-wrapped bundles of marijuana were found inside the tunnel.
HSI special agents were monitoring the house from the time of its construction in the fall of 2015. The property owners told the contractor to leave space for a floor safe when pouring the cement foundation. The residence was finished in December 2015 for approximately $86,000.
Narcotics began moving through the tunnel after Feb. 28, 2016, according to investigators.
On March 7, 2016 law enforcement officers seized over 1,350 pounds of marijuana that were smuggled through the tunnel and headed to Los Angeles. This was the only known time that the alleged traffickers attempted to move drugs from the tunnel for further distribution inside the U.S, said ICE.
The alleged smugglers, including the so-called ”tunnel queen-pin” were charged in federal court with various violations, including money laundering, conspiracy to import a controlled substance, and conspiracy to use border tunnels and passages.
Over the past five years, federal authorities have discovered more than 75 smuggling tunnels, most of which were in California and Arizona.
However, Calexico is generally considered a less desirable place to construct tunnels because of its residential neighborhoods and because the soil is denser and more difficult to penetrate, according to ICE.