Augustin Enrique Cruz, also known as "Tinky," the owner of a house hiding a secret, cross-border tunnel found in the Southern Californian desert, has been arrested, authorities announced.
The 416-yard tunnel starts at a 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 a restaurant in Mexicali, Mexico, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said at a news conference Wednesday.
The house is the first in California to be built for the sole purpose of hiding the exit to a tunnel used for transporting drugs, Duffy said.
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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations agents took Cruz into custody Thursday in Tucson, Arizona. He has been charged with narcotics trafficking, money laundering and tunnel-related crimes.
About 100 federal, state and local law enforcement officials found the tunnel inside the home at 902 E. Third St. 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.
Officials claim Cruz traveled back and forth between Arizona and Calexico from November to December 2015, looking for the right property to serve as the exit point for the tunnel. It was not immediately clear if Cruz had an attorney.
The U.S. Attorney's office alleges Cruz and co-conspirators hired local contractors to build the home. Cruz's boss allegedly instructed the contractor to leave a space in the foundation when pouring concrete for what they said would be a "safe."
The U.S. Attorney's office also alleges Cruz arranged for the purchase of multiple vehicles that were used to transport marijuana.
Once construction on the $86,000 house was finished in December, Cruz allegedly 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 or after Feb. 28, 2016, based on intercepted calls, Duffy said.
While serving a search warrant at the tunnel home Wednesday, authorities also served two additional search warrants. Officials served a warrant at a so-called "stash house" two miles away, at 1056 Horizon St. 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.
A mother and daughter were arrested in Arizona on Tuesday, along with two additional people Wednesday in Calexico. All were charged with drug trafficking, money laundering and tunnel-related charges.
Joel Duarte Medina was arrested in the Horizon Street house 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 complete. 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.
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.