A secret, cross-border tunnel found in the Southern Californian desert may be the first in California where smugglers built a home for the sole purpose of transporting drugs.
The 416-yard tunnel starts at a cement hole in the living room of a 3-bedroom, 2-bath home in Calexico, California, 120 miles east of San Diego, and runs across the border and into the kitchen of an open and running restaurant in Mexicali, Mexico, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said at a press conference Wednesday.
A hole in the floor – covered with tile – leads to a shaft, descending underground. The tunnel is the 12th large-scale operational drug smuggling tunnel discovered along the border since 2006, according to the U.S. Attorney's office in Southern California.
“We repeatedly see cartels trying to build these tunnels, they spend years doing it, they spend millions of dollars doing it, to create their own private underworld of secret passageways to move drugs unchecked into this country,” Duffy said. “But for the builders, for the financiers, for the operators of these passageways, there’s no light at the end of these tunnels.”
Authorities seized more than 1,350 pounds of marijuana smuggled through the tunnel, following the lengthy, multi-agency investigation. The drugs were worth more than $6 million in street value.
Authorities claim the traffickers scouted properties in the area before buying the home, later instructing the contractor to leave a space in the foundation when pouring concrete for what they said would be a "safe."
Once construction on the $86,000 house was finished in December, co-conspirators rented a "walk-behind saw and concrete blade" from a local El Centro business, Duffy said, presumably to create the tunnel exit. Investigators said they believe the traffickers began using the tunnel on Feb. 28, 2016, based on intercepted calls, Duffy said.
While serving a search warrant at the tunnel home, located at 902 E. Third Street, authorities also served two additional search warrants. Officials served a warrant at a so-called "stash house" two miles away, located at 1056 Horizon Street. The drugs were then taken to a warehouse at 260 Avenida Campillo, Suite A, Duffy said, where they were stored before being moved north.
Four people have been arrested in connection with the tunnel and are expected to be arraigned Wednesday or Thursday.
A mother and daughter were arrested in Arizona in connection with the tunnel Tuesday, along with two additional people Wednesday in Calexico. All were charged with various drug trafficking, money laundering and tunnel-related charges.
Joel Duarte Medina was arrested inside a so-called “stash house” on Horizon Street in Calexico and Manuel Gallegos Jiminez was arrested inside the tunnel residence. Marcia Manuela Duarte-Medina and her mother, Eva Duarte De Medina, were charged in Arizona with multiple charges, including conspiracy to import drugs. Court documents detail how Eva helped move vehicles loaded with drugs between the tunnel home and the stash location. It was not immediately clear if they had attorneys.
Officials said several years ago, they discovered a secret drug tunnel at the residence next door to the Third Street home, though it was not as complete as this tunnel. That residence is now empty.
The recent finding marks the first complete tunnel to be discovered in the area in a decade, as the soil composition makes the land difficult to dig through. The residential neighborhood makes it more difficult to hide smuggling activity, Duffy said.
At the Wednesday press conference, Duffy said the tunnel also marks the first time investigators have seen smugglers buy land and build a house for the sole purpose of hiding the exit to a drug tunnel in California.
More than 75 cross-border tunnels designed to smuggle drugs have been discovered along the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years, mostly in California and Arizona. In California, most tunnels tend to be in the Otay Mesa region, where warehouses hide typical drug smuggling activities.
Dozens of tunnels designed to smuggle drugs have been found along the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years, mostly in the Otay Mesa region. Some have been equipped with hydraulic lifts and electric rail cars.
Mexico's Sinaloa cartel has long controlled drug trafficking along the border in California's Imperial Valley, which offers easy freeway access to Los Angeles and Phoenix.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.