Mexico finds largest tunnel yet for smuggling drugs into U.S.

June 03, 1993|By New York Times News Service

While searching for the killers of a Mexican cardinal who was gunned down in Guadalajara last week, Mexican police discovered an elaborate cocaine-smuggling tunnel that was being dug under the Mexican border leading into Southern California.

The tunnel, about the diameter of a small car, was air-conditioned, lighted and reinforced with timbers and concrete, Mexican and U.S. drug enforcement officials said yesterday.

The tunnel, more than 1,400 feet in length, ran from Tijuana, Mexico, to the outskirts of San Diego, the officials said. It was the largest underground channel for drugs discovered in the long battle against smugglers at the border, they added.

The tunnel began under a warehouse in Mexico, the officials said, and was discovered, still under construction, in San Diego, a few hundred feet from the spot where another warehouse is under construction.

"They would have been able to smuggle tons of cocaine in without anyone seeing what they were doing," said Jack Hook, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Mr. Hook said the entrance to the tunnel on the Mexican side was hidden beneath a concrete slab floor built on steel rollers. The tunnel began, Mr. Hook said, with a vertical drop of about 65 feet, then leveled off and led straight north.

Workers moved up and down the tunnel entrance on aluminum ladder-like stairs, Mr. Hook said, and winches were being readied to lower bundles of cocaine. Two large air-conditioning units and a pair of generators were found, along with heavy construction tools, a large dining area and a dormitory with 20 beds.

In the last few years, the Mexican border has become the funnel for up to 70 percent of the estimated 300 to 400 tons of cocaine that is smuggled into the United States from South America annually.

U.S. and Mexican officials say they believe that most of the cocaine moves across the border hidden in trucks that mingle with the thousands of cars and trucks that routinely carry fruit, vegetables and manufactured goods between the two countries. Fewer than 10 percent of the vehicles are inspected. To check more of the trucks and cars, officials of both countries say, would paralyze cross-border commerce.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, which is now awaiting the approval of Congress and the legislatures of Mexico and Canada, will reduce border controls and make drug smuggling even easier, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials say. To exploit the new agreement, Mexican drug traffickers are setting up factories, trucking companies and warehouses, like the one that concealed the tunnel, near the border, the U.S. officials say.

Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, the archbishop of Guadalajara, was killed in a hail of bullets as the car in which he was being driven pulled to the curb at the international airport in Guadalajara on May 24.

The Mexican authorities said at first that he was caught in the cross-fire of two feuding drug organizations, but later they said that the cardinal had apparently been mistaken for the leader of one of the gangs.

Mexican authorities have arrested more than a dozen suspects and have searched houses across Mexico. In a search in Tijuana, they found papers that led them to the tunnel.

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