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Officials Say Mexico-US Drug Tunnel Could Be 20 Years Old - 2002-05-21

Authorities in California have sealed a tunnel that was used to bring drugs from Mexico to the United States. Investigators say the passage was a conduit for a Mexican drug cartel. After months of investigation, a larger picture of the operation is now emerging.

Acting on a tip, U.S. investigators found the passageway beneath a house east of San Diego in late February. The tunnel began beneath a ranch house near Tecate, Mexico, east of Tijuana. Stretching 266 meters northward, it ended on the U.S. side of the border beneath a house that was unoccupied much of the time.

The drug operation was active. Inside the tunnel, authorities found a 135-kilogram stash of marijuana.

Don Thornhill of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says billions of dollars in drugs may have gone through the passageway, over a decade or longer.

"There was every indication that the tunnel was being actively used for moving drugs, and some of the information that we've developed in the case indicated that it's been in operation for some time. You look at the benefits of using the tunnel," he said. "There's no customs to worry about, no border inspections to submit to. And we feel that this tunnel, at a minimum, has been active for about 10 years."

The drug enforcement official says the tunnel may have existed in rough form 20 year ago.

No arrests have been made, but authorities believe the tunnel was operated by Tijuana's Arellano Felix drug cartel. The man who runs the cartel in Tecate is being held in Mexico City on separate narcotics charges.

Authorities have not filed charges against the owner of the house on the U-S side of the tunnel, but they say the investigation is ongoing. Mexican officials are looking for the man who rented the house at the southern end, but say he leased the property under a pseudonym. Two caretakers were questioned but are not considered suspects.

Agent Don Thornhill says the tunnel was a sophisticated project. "I can tell you that whoever put that thing together had to know a little bit about engineering, welding and electrical wiring because the thing was shored up with reinforced wood," he said. "You had a railing system. We found a cart there that was electric-powered. It had PVC pipe to keep the thing ventilated."

Electric lights hung from the ceiling every 15 meters.

David Field, the man who owns the property that covers part of the tunnel, but not the terminus, says he has had suspicions for years that something illegal was taking place on the neighboring properties. He tells VOA that because of the drug trade, his rural section of the border has become a war zone.

Drug enforcement officials say smaller cross-border tunnels have been found near San Diego, but none this elaborate. They estimate that construction of this passageway took two years. With the U.S. side cemented shut, they say the tunnel is now out of operation.

Mexican officials have announced some headway in their battle against the Arellano Felix clan, who controlled the drug trade in this region. One brother was killed in a shootout this year and another arrested.