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Architect for 'El Chapo's' cross-border narco tunnels sentenced to 10 years

Kristina Davis, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

U.S. authorities described Sanchez as a regional manager for the cartel in the states of Baja California and Jalisco, overseeing the movement of marijuana from southern Mexico to northern Mexico.

He was also responsible for building the tunnels that the marijuana moved through, as well as determining who would be able to smuggle through them, authorities said. He charged fees to traffickers for the privilege of using the underground routes, officials said.

Tunnels have long been a preferred method to smuggle marijuana; its bulk and smell make smuggling in vehicles through ports of entry more challenging, unlike other drugs. The probation officer who prepared Sanchez's pre-sentencing report noted that "it does not appear 'harder' drugs like cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine were funneled through" the tunnels.

While Sanchez admitted to orchestrating several tunnel networks, his indictment and plea agreement single out two.

Both were in Otay Mesa, an expanding warehouse district along the border in San Diego with ideal conditions for tunneling. For starters, the soil, a mixture of volcanic ash and clay, is perfect for digging: soft enough to get through but firm enough to hold its shape. Plus, the warren of warehouses — where loud noises and round-the-clock truck traffic are routine — provided ample cover for a major trafficking operation.

One tunnel was discovered on Nov. 25, 2010. It ran for 2,200 feet, starting at a Tijuana home and exiting at a set of warehouses on Marconi Drive. The passage was noted for its complexity, with a rail system, tongue-and-groove flooring and ventilation.

 

About 3,500 kilograms of marijuana were seized in the warehouse, and further investigation led to a tractor-trailer laden with another 12,500 kilograms at the Interstate-15 Border Patrol checkpoint in Temecula.

The second tunnel, which U.S. authorities said was even more sophisticated, was found Nov. 29, 2011, at a warehouse on Calle de Linea. Agents seized 15,000 kilograms of marijuana inside the warehouse, and another 10,600 kilograms from a tractor-trailer that had loaded up and driven to the city of Industry, according to the plea agreement.

Sanchez, a legal permanent U.S. resident, will likely be deported to Mexico once released from prison. He plans to return to Guadalajara and undergo surgery to address serious health issues, according to his attorney, Guadalupe Valencia.

During the hearing, Sanchez apologized for his conduct through a Spanish interpreter: "I promise I will not do anything illegal again, because the easy way to get money is usually the bad way to get it."

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