SAN DIEGO -- Federal authorities in San Diego have made one of the largest marijuana seizures in the United States, confiscating more than 20 tons of pot that was smuggled into the country through an underground tunnel connecting warehouses on either side of California's border with Mexico, officials said Wednesday.
Mexican authorities seized more than four tons of pot from the warehouse on their side of the border.
The marijuana is 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. The largest amount of marijuana seized by Drug Enforcement Administration agents was in 2008 in Oregon, where 33 tons were found, DEA special agent Ralph W. Partridge said.
Wednesday's announcement comes only weeks 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 which cartel was running the drug tunnel.
Officials have found 125 underground tunnels along the border 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.
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.