HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Billions In Drugs Moved Via Tunnel
Pubdate: Fri, 01 Mar 2002
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2002 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  http://www.mapinc.org/media/491
Website: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
Author: Kevin Sullivan

BILLIONS IN DRUGS MOVED VIA TUNNEL

Lucrative Drug-Smuggling Mechanism Discovered

TIERRA DEL SOL, Calif. -  Down the dust-blown driveway, past
a chain-link fence and the Keep Out sign, past the beefy Rottweiler
and the tire swing, in a closet under the staircase in a little
two-story bungalow, Mexico's most violent drug lords kept a secret at
Johnson's pig farm.

WHEN U.S. DRUG AGENTS busted into the closet on Wednesday, they found
a large safe. They opened it and found nothing. Then they spotted the
false floor. And when they pried it up, they found the entrance to a
1,200-foot tunnel - complete with electric lights, ventilation ducts
and wooden walls - that ended in a fireplace in a house just beyond
the metal wall that separates the United States from Mexico.

Investigators are calling the tunnel in this remote section of rocky
border scrubland, 70 miles east of San Diego near a small town called
Tecate, one of most lucrative drug-smuggling mechanisms ever
discovered along the U.S.-Mexico frontier.

"It's one of the most significant finds ever along the southwestern
border," said Errol J. Chavez, special agent in charge of the San
Diego office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "They used
this tunnel to smuggle billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana
and other drugs into the United States for several years."

Chavez, speaking to reporters in San Diego, said investigators believe
the tunnel was built at least two or three years ago by the notorious
Tijuana cartel, headed by several brothers in the Arellano Felix
family. He said the Arellano Felixes moved tons of drugs in carts that
rolled on railroad-style tracks through the tunnel, which is about 20
feet below ground.

The drugs were then likely loaded into pickups and other small trucks,
which were used to deliver the drugs to Los Angeles and beyond.

Chavez said investigators have learned that the Arellano Felixes
charged other smuggling rings a fee to use the tunnel. He said that
the tunnel seems to have been used exclusively for drugs and that
there was no evidence that illegal immigrants were also moved through
it.

The tunnel, which is four feet square, offers further evidence of the
difficulty of sealing the 2,000-mile border despite efforts to cut off
drug smuggling and illegal immigration. Since Sept. 11, border
security has been sharply increased and drug seizures are way up. But
Vincent E. Bond, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs Service in San
Diego, said the tunnel shows that when one route is closed to
smugglers, they find a new one.

The discovery came just days before a visit to Mexico by Tom Ridge,
the U.S. director of homeland security, who will discuss border
security with top Mexican officials.

A HISTORY OF TUNNELS

Tunnels are nothing new along the border. Several have been discovered
since 1990. The largest one, found in 1993, stretched about 1,452 feet
under the border at Tijuana, Mexico. That tunnel was never used
because it was discovered just before it was completed. Chavez said it
belonged to drug lord Joaquin Guzman, known as "El Chapo," who tried
to keep the tunnel secret by murdering the workers who dug it.

The discovery of the tunnel here, which Chavez said would be
destroyed, is another in a series of blows for the Arellano Felixes.

U.S. officials recently froze many of the Felixes' known assets in the
United States and banned U.S. citizens from spending money at hotels,
pharmacies and other Mexican businesses controlled by the cartel.
Then, earlier this month, Mexican police may have killed Ramon
Arellano Felix, the cartel's most ruthless enforcer and a figure on
the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. U.S. forensic scientists are trying to
determine if a man killed Feb. 10 in the Mexican resort city of
Mazatlan was him.

No arrests have been made on the U.S. side in the tunnel case. Chavez
said investigators from the DEA and the U.S. Customs Service, which
assisted in Wednesday's raid, are seeking several suspects, including
a man who leased the house and was living there.

Mexican police said they have detained for questioning two people who
were found in the house at the Mexican end of the tunnel during the
raid.

DRUGS IN THE TUNNEL

Chavez also said that about 550 pounds of freshly packed marijuana was
found in the tunnel, suggesting that it had been in use until very
recently. Here in Tierra del Sol, DEA officers continued to patrol the
pig farm, where two small houses sit amid signs of normal life,
including several dogs and picnic tables, an old slide and swing set,
and rusting trucks.

A small caretaker's house had few furnishings beyond a couple of
floral-print couches and a television. Just beyond the other small,
barn-style bungalow sat Mexico, behind an eight-foot green metal fence
that was erected in 1995 as part of a stepped-up security program
known as Operation Gatekeeper.

In the 1980s, the property was owned by Elbert Lushen Johnson until it
was seized by federal authorities because of drug-smuggling activity
and sold at auction. Chavez said Johnson is serving time in prison
after being convicted of cocaine smuggling in Arkansas in 2000.

The property's current owners, Belinda and Raul Alvarado, bought the
house in 1995. Chavez said they have been questioned by the DEA. He
said authorities do not know the name of the man who leased the house
from the Alvarados, who is being sought for questioning. Chavez said
officials are unsure whether the Alvarados were aware of illegal
activity on their property. They have not been charged with any crime.

"Everybody around here knows that you don't go down there, or the old
man who lives there will come after you with his shotgun," said a
woman who said she has lived nearby for 10 years.

She declined to give her name, saying that many of her neighbors were
involved in drug smuggling and that her life "wouldn't be worth a
plugged nickel" if her name appeared in a newspaper. She said the man
living in the house has been there since last year. She said she
stopped in last fall to inquire about renting the property, but the
man, a Mexican in his fifties, came out with his shotgun and told her
to leave.

The woman said that this secluded section of the border, about eight
miles from the nearest main road, is used by Mexicans sneaking into
the United States illegally. She said they sometimes travel in pickups
or larger flatbed trucks, which she said she suspects are used mainly
for drugs.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Derek