Imperial Valley Press
August 27, 2011
By CHELCEY ADAMI
CALEXICO — Patrons went about their normal business Friday in the old Vons shopping center on Second Street, unaware that Mexico’s pervasive drug business had set up shop in their midst.
A large piece of drilling equipment and an incomplete drug-smuggling tunnel were discovered Thursday afternoon inside the long-closed supermarket, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced.
The tunnel didn’t yet reach into Mexico, whose border fence is easily visible from the store’s front entrance.
Calexico residents working at the neighboring businesses in the shopping center said they hadn’t seen any unusual activity recently.
Some businesses were asked by authorities to close Thursday as the investigation continued.
Rocio Perez of Calexico said in Spanish that normally it’s very peaceful in that shopping center. Knowing that activity like this was occurring nearby makes it seem more dangerous, she said.
Bernardo Mendoza of Brawley was shopping in the center Friday. He said in Spanish he wasn’t surprised about the tunnel and that it often happens near the border.
Calexico resident Melissa Villalobos speculated that it would be easy to construct the tunnel at night since all the shopping center’s stores close after 7 p.m. or 8 p.m.
Signs on the vacant store say “Baja Bikes” and “Coming soon.”
The 4-inch diameter tunnel found inside the store extends about 100 yards.
“The use of pipeline tunnels is one of the newest approaches being employed by drug-smuggling organizations,” an ICE press release stated. “The narrow passages are lined with PVC pipe, and the drugs are smuggled through.”
The agency’s Homeland Security Investigations agents were still gathering evidence Friday.
The tunnel was found after a city of Calexico hazardous materials unit responded to reports of a possible gas leak at the location, the ICE press release explained.
After discovering the equipment and tunnel, local authorities told U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations agents. Mexican law enforcement was also notified.
“This discovery again shows the Mexican cartels’ growing desperation in the face of heightened border security,” El Centro ICE HIS Assistant Special Agent in Charge Ricardo Sandoval said.
“Frustrated by our defenses, they’re literally going underground, but we’re thwarting them there as well,” Sandoval said. “That’s owing to the extraordinary ongoing enforcement efforts involving the agencies here and in Mexico.”
Authorities have found more than 10 smuggling tunnels in the area around Calexico and Mexicali during the last four years, according to ICE.