SAN DIEGO - Three suspected drug runners for a Mexican organized crime cartel were in custody Thursday following the discovery of an elaborate smuggling tunnel between nondescript warehouses in Tijuana and Otay Mesa.
Members of the San Diego Tunnel Task Force found the subterranean passageway -- outfitted with electricity, ventilation and a rail system -- on Wednesday night in the course of a long-term investigation, according to U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement.
Authorities also seized about 325 pounds of cocaine along with more than eight tons of marijuana associated with the would-be operators of the nearly 600-yard tunnel, which had access points southwest of Otay Mesa Port of Entry and in an industrial park on the San Diego side of the border.
It was the eighth large-scale smuggling tunnel discovered in the San Diego area since 2006, according to ICE. In total, federal authorities have detected more than 75 such channels in the last five years, mostly in California and Arizona.
Dozens of tunnels have been discovered along the border in recent years, designed largely to smuggle marijuana to the United States. Earlier this year, Mexican authorities escorted 10News Anchor Steve Atkinson inside a drug tunnel designed to reach San Diego from the Mexican side of the border.
"If (drug cartels) build them, we're going to find them," said Laura Duffy, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California. "And if we find them, we will destroy them."
Narcotics traffickers spent years and tens of millions of dollars in vain on the "super tunnel" that was shuttered this week, and they likely will do the same in the future, Duffy told reporters during a late-afternoon briefing led by officials with various federal agencies near the site of the latest discovery.
"But these cartels are foolish to think they are shoveling under the radar," she said.
The painstakingly built underground passage was newly completed and apparently had yet to be used as a smuggling avenue when it was uncovered, said Bill Sherman, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's San Diego Field Division.
"I think we're 100 percent confident as a group here (that) they did not move one gram of drugs through that tunnel," Sherman said.
The arrestees -- identified as Jose Arturo-Mendoza, Juan Pena-Osuna and Roman Ramos Romero -- likely will be arraigned in federal court in San Diego on Friday, according to Duffy. The suspects' ages and places of residence were not immediately available.
Investigators got wind of the newly built tunnel early this month from a confidential informant, and the information led them to a warehouse in the 9100 block of Siempre Viva Road in San Diego and a second one in the 1600 block of Brandywine Avenue in Chula Vista, according to court documents.
Last Saturday, police pulled over a truck that had been under surveillance in the case, according to federal officials. Inside it, officers found some three tons of marijuana.
Following the seizure, investigators continued to monitor the two storage buildings. On Wednesday, San Diego police conducted a traffic stop on a van investigators had seen leaving the Otay Mesa facility and found the haul of cocaine, officials said.
Later that day, investigators served search warrants at both locations, recovering more than 2,100 pounds of marijuana at the Otay Mesa facility and seizing another 8,900 pounds of the leafy drug at the other storehouse.
The arrests and seizures were the latest developments in an ongoing probe by multiple U.S. agencies, including the DEA, ICE Homeland Security Investigations, Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol, with support from the San Diego and Chula Vista police departments, as well as the California National Guard.