Authorities in Arizona unearthed a sophisticated 240-yard drug-smuggling tunnel stretching into Mexico that included engineered support beams, lights and ventilation.
The six-foot-high corridor ran from a store in an abandoned strip mall near Yuma to an ice shop across the border in San Luis Rio Colorado. It provided a direct link to the US for Mexican drug cartels.
The Mexican Army also found a second, incomplete, tunnel under a bathroom sink in Tijuana that stretched more than 200 yards into San Diego, California. The diggers had not yet reached the surface when authorities shut it down.
The tunnel shaft in the Arizona ran 55 feet deep and showed a level of engineering uncommon for drug tunnels, authorities say.
Inside the passageway, the walls were lined with wood and smugglers had installed an actual floor—not just dirt. Federal agents estimate it cost the drug cartel up to $1.5million to build.
‘When you see what is there and the way they designed it, it wasn’t something that your average miner could put together,’ said Douglas Coleman, special agent in charge of the Phoenix division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
‘You would need someone with some engineering expertise to put something together like this.’
The DEA says the brutal Sinaloa cartel likely built the tunnel, which was found on Saturday.
It was discovered after state police pulled over a man who had 39 pounds of methamphetamine in his vehicle and mentioned the strip mall.
The tunnel was found beneath a water tank in a storage room and stretched across the border to an ice-plant business in the Mexican city of San Luis Rio Colorado. It was reinforced with four-by-six beams and lined with plywood.
As US authorities heighten enforcement on land, tunnels have become an increasingly common way to smuggle enormous loads of heroin, marijuana and other drugs into the country. More than 70 passages have been found on the border since October 2008, surpassing the number of discoveries in the previous six years.
A total of 156 secret tunnels have been found along the border since 1990, but the vast majority were incomplete.
Raids last November on two tunnels linking San Diego and Tijuana netted a combined 52 tons of marijuana on both sides of the border. In early December 2009, authorities found an incomplete tunnel that stretched nearly 900 feet into San Diego from Tijuana, equipped with an elevator at the Mexican entrance.
Investigators believe the tunnel wasn’t in operation for long because there was little wear on its floor, and 55-gallon drums containing extracted dirt hadn’t been removed from the property.
Coleman said investigators can’t yet say for sure if the tunnel, estimated to cost $1.5 million to build, was operated by the brutal Sinaloa cartel.
Still, authorities suspect cartel involvement because the group from Sinaloa controls smuggling routes into Arizona.
‘Another cartel wasn’t going to roll into that area and put down that kind of money in Sinaloa territory,’ Agent Coleman said.
‘Nobody is going to construct this tunnel without significant cartel leadership knowing what’s going on.’
The Tijuana tunnel had been under investigation by US authorities for three months, and they found no connections to the smuggling operation involving the Arizona passageway.
It takes six months to a year to build a tunnel, authorities say. Workers use shovels and pickaxes to slowly dig through the soil, sleeping in buildings where the tunnels begin until the job is done. Sometimes they use pneumatic tools.