Dec. 1, 2011 -- Federal officials revealed that a drug tunnel discovered Tuesday during a bust that netted 32 tons of marijuana was so sophisticated that it had a secret working elevator, electric lighting, rail cars and hydraulic doors -- but may have been found before smugglers could get the narcotics into the hands of American customers.
The tunnel, ending in San Diego, Calif., is easily the "most sophisticated that we have discovered perhaps ever, but definitely at least in the last five years," Lauren Mack, a spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told ABC News early Wednesday.
Authorities described the intricate, 600-yard-plus tunnel, as well as the seizure of 32 tons of marijuana -- value estimated at $65 million -- at a press conference late Wednesday. But according to ICE special agent Derek Benner, the underground passageway was found before the smugglers could make use of all their hard work.
"From the conditions inside the passageway and our ongoing investigation, we're confident we've been able to shut this operation down before the perpetrators were able to use it for smuggling narcotics," Benner said in a statement. "It's clear though, from the level of sophistication involved, that the criminal organization responsible for constructing this tunnel had very ambitious plans."
The tunnel's discovery was the product of a six-month investigation by several law enforcement agencies, including San Diego's dedicated Tunnel Task Force, along with Mexican authorities, ICE said. A late break in the case came when officials observed a tractor trailer leaving a warehouse in the southern San Diego neighborhood of Otay Mesa. Drug dogs at a border patrol checkpoint in San Clemente, Calif., outside Los Angeles alerted agents to narcotics on board, but, being aware of the larger investigation, the agents allowed the truck to roll through.
It wasn't until the truck arrived at its apparent destination in a Los Angeles suburb and men began unloading its cargo that federal agents moved in, arrested four men and seized nearly 11 tons of marijuana from the truck, ICE said. Another approximately 17 tons of pot was discovered in the Otay Mesa warehouse "wrapped in plastic and stacked neatly on pallets."
On the Mexican side, ICE said the tunnel's entrance was in another warehouse but could only be accessed through a "hydraulically-controlled steel door and an elevator concealed beneath the warehouse floor." At the bottom of the tunnel shaft, federal agents found another three tons of marijuana. Another ton was found "in bundles near the tunnel's entrance," ICE said.
Six suspects were arrested in total in connection with the drug smuggling operation.
The tunnel's discovery is the latest in a string of high-profile finds in the war on drugs. More than 75 cross-border smuggling tunnels have been discovered since 2007, ICE said.
Earlier this month, U.S. authorities nabbed 14 tons of marijuana from warehouses connected by a drug tunnel from Mexico to the same south San Diego neighborhood. Just a few days ago a pair of similar tunnels were uncovered in the Arizona border town of Nogales.
Federal officials are "putting a stranglehold on the cartels' ability to smuggle drugs into the United States," said William R. Sherman, acting special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego. "Seizing close to 50 tons of marijuana in one month denies the cartels the financial means to continue their operations."
The stranglehold may be hurting the cartels' finances, but apparently not their audacity -- the warehouse on the Mexican side of the border was on the same block as a federal police station, according to The Associated Press.