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'El Chapo's' reputed tunnel builder is extradited to San Diego

Kristina Davis, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

SAN DIEGO -- The reputed architect of some of the Sinaloa drug cartel's most elaborate tunnel systems has been quietly extradited to San Diego, eight years after his arrest in Mexico.

Jose Sanchez Villalobos, 58, is alleged to have been the highest-ranking cartel member tasked with building cross-border tunnels and using them to smuggle large amounts of marijuana into the United States when he was indicted in 2012, according to court documents filed in San Diego federal court.

As with other recent extraditions of high-level cartel suspects, his happened with little fanfare.

He was transferred to U.S. agents at an airport in Toluca, Mexico, on Jan. 10 and taken to San Diego. He was arraigned three days later on a 13-count indictment. A plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf.

Mexico's federal prosecutorial agency announced the extradition on Sunday.

Sanchez's arrest in 2012 came during a flurry of tunnel construction along San Diego's border with Mexico, particularly in the Otay Mesa commercial district where warehouses provided ample cover for trafficking activity and the area's soil composition made for ideal building conditions.


The tunnel-building campaign -- and the effort to push the engineering boundaries -- came under the leadership of Sinaloa drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, long known for favoring subterranean routes.

While dozens of tunnels have been found in California over the last couple decades, the indictment charges Sanchez with helping finance and construct two.

One was discovered on Nov. 25, 2010. It started in the dining area of a Tijuana home and ran for 2,200 feet, coming out at two Otay Mesa warehouses. The discovery led to the seizure of 22 tons of marijuana -- most of it found in a tractor-trailer stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint and some of it from inside the tunnel and at a ranch in Mexico.

The construction was sophisticated, with a rail system, tongue-and-groove flooring and ventilation, authorities said at the time.


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