By Julie Watson
The Associated Press
SAN DIEGO — Federal authorities in San Diego have made one of the largest marijuana seizures in the United States, confiscating 20 tons of pot near an underground tunnel connecting warehouses on either side of California's border with Mexico, officials said Wednesday.
Mexican authorities seized another four tons of pot from the warehouse on their side of the border.
In total, between 25 and 30 tons of marijuana were seized from both sides — worth more than $20 million if sold on the streets of San Diego, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton. The bricks of pot were packaged for sale.
"This is obviously the work of a cartel," said Morton, who held a news conference outside the warehouse in an industrial park near the Otay Mesa truck crossing, across from Tijuana.
Officials said the lightening-speed, 12-hour operation started Tuesday night when U.S. authorities watching a warehouse under surveillance followed a tractor-trailer as it left the building.
ICE agents called in the California Highway Patrol, whose officers stopped the rig near Temecula, California, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) way. Authorities say they found 10 tons of marijuana inside the tractor-trailer. The driver, a U.S. citizen, and his Mexican wife were arrested and will be arraigned in San Diego on Thursday.
Authorities quickly obtained a federal search warrant to enter the warehouse, where they discovered 10 to 15 more tons of marijuana, Morton said.
They also found the opening to the tunnel, which ran the length of six football fields under the border and ended at a warehouse in Mexico, Morton said. The tunnel had lighting, ventilation and a rail system to send loads of illegal drugs into California.
The clandestine passageway was too low to stand up in and was believed to be in operation for only a brief time, Morton said.
Officials said the seizure was the largest ever in California and was believed to be the second-largest in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized 33 tons of marijuana in Oregon in 2008, DEA special agent Ralph W. Partridge said.
Wednesday's announcement comes a little over a week after Mexican officials made their largest marijuana seizure ever, confiscating a massive 134 tons believed to belong to the powerful Sinaloa cartel.
Morton said officials haven't determined whether the two major busts were from the same group of traffickers.
Officials have found 125 cross-border tunnels built by Mexican drug cartels to elude detection since the early 1990s, ICE officials said. Of those, 75 have been found in the past four years. Many were discovered before they were completed. The majority were found along the California and Arizona borders with Mexico.
Morton credited the increase in tunnel discoveries to "good old-fashioned law enforcement" efforts, with agents keeping a close eye on the thousands of warehouses storing goods moved back and forth across the border.
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Morton said such a rapid bust, which came after a monthlong investigation, was possible because of cooperation between U.S. and Mexican authorities. He said that cooperation is better than ever, making it tougher for Mexican drug traffickers to move their loads and forcing their smuggling businesses to move underground.