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Cross-border pot smuggling tunnel has sophisticated features

November 27, 2010 |  7:41 am

Cordoned off

The drug tunnel found this week on the U.S.-Mexico border has several sophisticated features, officials said.

The tunnel, discovered in a San Diego warehouse district, was one of the longest ever discovered and had several unique features that highlighted traffickers' evolving approach to ferrying drugs across the border. The floor of the passageway was lined with tongue-and-groove wooden boards that served as a level surface for the cart-and-rail system. There was an underground room, about 10 feet by 20 feet, where smugglers offloaded the marijuana bales from the cart before hoisting them to the surface.

And there were two tunnel branches, which authorities speculated allowed smugglers alternate exit points in case of surveillance.

The cross-border tunnel, which started in a residence in Tijuana, stretched nearly half a mile and split into two passageways, with the branches emerging at separate warehouses nearly 800 feet apart.

The tunnel was within a block of a subterranean passage found three weeks ago, where authorities seized more than 25 tons of marijuana, the second-largest marijuana seizure in U.S. history.

With Thursday's haul of 20 more tons, authorities said they had dealt a significant double blow to Mexican organized-crime groups. The amount seized was the equivalent of about 17 million marijuana joints, said Ralph Partridge, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in San Diego.

Authorities believe the drugs found in the tunnels this month belonged to separate cells of the Sinaloa drug cartel, which has long used northern Baja California as a staging ground for smuggling drugs into California. The discovery on Thursday morning came after U.S. agents stopped a tractor-trailer loaded with marijuana bales that had just left a warehouse on Marconi Drive.

Inside the empty warehouse space, which had a "For Rent" sign out front, agents found an opening cut into the concrete floor. They traversed the tunnel to the second opening in a warehouse a few blocks away on Via de la Amistad.

To find the opening on the Tijuana side, Mexican Army soldiers traveled the entire 2,200-foot passage, which featured lighting and ventilation systems. They surfaced in the kitchen of a residence where a family lived. Authorities said six people were arrested in Mexico.

-- Richard Marosi in San Diego

Photo: Agents surround one of two buildings in San Diego where authorities have found exits from a half-mile-long tunnel that originates in Tijuana. Credit: John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune