CALEXICO – Federal officials seized a cross-border tunnel Wednesday morning following a lengthy multi-agency investigation that resulted in the arrests of four people in Calexico, California and Arizona and the confiscation of more than a ton of marijuana.
The tunnel, approximately 415 yards in length, stretches from El Sarape Restaurant in Mexicali, Mexico to a three-bedroom, two-bath house, located at 902 E. Third Street in Calexico, California, about 300 yards north of the international border. In the front room of the residence, agents found a hole in the floor covered with tile leading to a shaft descending underground. Two people were arrested in Arizona yesterday and two people were arrested today in Calexico and charged by federal complaint with various drug trafficking, money laundering and tunnel-related charges, including conspiracy to import a controlled substance and conspiracy to use border tunnels and passages. Defendants Joel Duarte Medina and Manuel Gallegos Jiminez were arrested in Calexico. Defendant Joel Duarte Medina was arrested inside a residence located on Horizon Street, in Calexico, which was used as a stash location for the tunnel organization. Agents also seized approximately 1,532 pounds of marijuana inside the Horizon Street residence this morning. Defendant Manuel Gallegos Jiminez was arrested today inside the tunnel residence. Both defendants are scheduled to make their first court appearances tomorrow in El Centro before U.S. Magistrate Judge Pete Lewis.
Among those charged in Arizona was Marcia Manuela Duarte-Medina, who was taken into custody in Nogales, Arizona, on Tuesday night. In court documents, she and others are alleged to be the purchasers of the tunnel residence in Calexico. She is scheduled to appear today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Markovich in Arizona.
Also arrested in Arizona was Marcia Manuel Duarte Medina’s mother, Eva Duarte De Medina, who was charged in Southern District of California, with various charges including conspiracy to import drugs, conspiracy to distribute drugs, and maintaining drug related premises. As stated in court documents, Eva Duarte De Medina assisted in moving vehicles loaded with narcotics between the tunnel residence and the Horizon Street stash location. She is scheduled to appear today before Judge Markovich in Arizona.
This is the first operational tunnel discovered in Calexico in a decade. According to federal investigators, it also represents the first time drug traffickers are known to have purchased property and constructed a house for the sole purpose of concealing the exit of a subterranean drug tunnel. The search warrant affidavit and charging documents allege the traffickers scouted properties in the area and selected the Third Street parcel in a residential section of Calexico. The property sale was finalized in April of 2015 for $240,000 by the drug traffickers.
“This house and tunnel were constructed under the watchful eye of law enforcement,” said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. “For the builders, the financiers and the operators of these passageways, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. We will seize your drugs and your tunnel before you even have a chance to use it.”
“Today’s enforcement actions are the culmination of months of tireless investigative work by HSI and its enforcement partners, showing yet again our collective resolve to use all of the resources at our disposal to combat this increasingly dangerous form of cross-border smuggling,” said Dave Shaw, special agent in charge for HSI San Diego. “I’d emphasize that our investigation in this case is still very much ongoing, but preliminarily we believe the shuttering of this latest sophisticated smuggling tunnel has dealt a serious blow to yet another narcotics trafficking organization that was determined to succeed at all costs.”
“If these drug trafficking organizations think they can move their operations east and no one will be the wiser, they are mistaken,” said DEA San Diego Special Agent in Charge William R. Sherman. “With the assistance of our law enforcement partners, we will remain vigilant in both San Diego and Imperial Counties to ensure that these dangerous cross border drug tunnels are shut down and the organizations responsible are put out of business.”
Court documents describe how HSI special agents used court-authorized wiretaps and other investigative techniques to monitored the construction of the house during October and November of 2015. According to the case affidavit, the property owners told the construction contractor to leave a space for a floor safe when pouring a cement foundation for the house. Investigators believe the owners intended to use that hole in the foundation as the tunnel’s exit point. In late December, 2015, co-conspirators rented a “walk behind saw and concrete blade” from a local business in El Centro, California, presumably to create the tunnel exit. The residence was completed in December of 2015 at a cost of approximately $86,000.
Once the house was finished, the drug trafficking organization opened the tunnel’s exit point and began smuggling narcotics through the tunnel. Based on intercepted calls and surveillance, agents believe the traffickers began smuggling narcotics through the tunnel after February 28, 2016. Investigators are confident that was the first time the tunnel was used.
According to court records, the drug traffickers used another residence four miles from the tunnel exit as a stash house at 1056 Horizon Street, Calexico, to store the smuggled narcotics. Eventually, the traffickers moved the narcotics from that stash location to a warehouse located at 260 Avenida Campillo, Suite A, Calexico, where the smuggled narcotics were stored until they could be moved northbound by the transportation cells.
Drivers transported the marijuana from the tunnel exit to a stash house and then to the Santo Thomas Swap Meet in Calexico, where a new driver would transport the load to another stash location. Thus drivers taking contraband to the Horizon Warehouse Street site were not aware of the original stash location at the Third Street property. Using multiple locations and multiple drivers is a means for drug traffickers to compartmentalize their operations and keep various players in the dark about the organization’s methods.
On March 7, 2016, HSI agents and West Covina Police Department seized over 1,350 pounds of marijuana that were smuggled through the tunnel and funneled into the two stash locations before being transported northbound to Los Angeles via Brawley. This was the only known time that traffickers moved the drugs from Calexico stash houses for distribution via Brawley and Los Angeles.
Calexico is generally considered a less desirable place to construct tunnels because soil composition is more difficult to penetrate, and because it is a largely a residential city, making tunnel exits and smuggling activity more difficult to conceal.
Traffickers have found the Otay Mesa region, where the majority of super tunnels have been discovered along the California-Mexico border in recent years, to be a more attractive option because the terrain is easier to excavate and the thousands of warehouses on either side of the border provide convenient camouflage.
The marijuana seized in connection with the tunnel has an estimated street value of nearly $6 million. The tunnel dismantled today is the 12th large-scale operational drug smuggling tunnel discovered along the California border since 2006. In the last five years, federal authorities have detected more than 75 crossborder smuggling tunnels, most of them in California and Arizona.[envira-gallery id=”74362″]