California house built to disguise drug tunnel is first such case in U.S., feds say

While the discovery of drug tunnels spanning the U.S-Mexico border has become a worryingly frequent occurrence for law enforcement, the unearthing of a 415-yard passageway earlier this week in southern California is notable because it was the first time that a property in the United States was purchased with the express purpose of building a home to disguise a drug tunnel.

The owner of the newly-built house, Augustin Enrique “Tinky” Cruz, was arrested on Thursday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Arizona on drug trafficking and money laundering charges.

Cruz faces five counts: conspiracy to import controlled substances; conspiracy to maintain drug-related premises; money laundering; and aiding in the construction and use of a narcotics tunnel. Each of the five counts carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Federal prosecutors allege that Cruz, a U.S. citizen who resides in Arizona, scouted properties in California before purchasing a plot of land in Calexico in January 2015. The cash he used to buy the property was allegedly provided to him by his co-conspirators in California and Arizona.

Calexico is a city of about 40,000 people located 120 miles east of San Diego.

Cruz allegedly had the builders leave a spot in the floor of the foundation that would later become the entrance to the tunnel.

The house was completed in December of last year and the next month Cruz rented construction equipment to widen the entry to the tunnel.

The tunnel extended about 300 yards in Mexico from El Sarape Mexican restaurant and ran about 100 yards under U.S. soil to the house in a quiet residential area.

Unbeknownst to Cruz, however, federal investigators had been monitoring the house throughout the construction process and were monitoring his phone calls.

"This house and tunnel were constructed under the watchful eye of law enforcement," said Laura Duffy, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California. "For the builders, the financiers and the operators of these passageways, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. We will seize your drugs and your tunnel before you even have a chance to use it."

Cruz and his cohorts purportedly started moving drugs through the tunnel on February 28 of this year. The drugs were then allegedly moved to another home in Calexico and then to a nearby warehouse.

Federal authorities seized 1,350 pounds of marijuana in Los Angeles on March 7 that was directly shipped through the tunnel.

The latest discovery is the first completed tunnel found in a decade in Calexico, which is less of a draw for drug traffickers than San Diego because the soil is harder and the city is largely residential, authorities said. San Diego's tunnels are concentrated in an industrial area whose warehouses are considered easier to mask drug-laden trucks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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