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13 charged in tunnel drug smuggling scheme

May 25, 1999
Web posted at: 11:01 p.m. EDT (0301 GMT)

PHOENIX (CNN) -- A federal indictment issued Tuesday charged 13 people with smuggling cocaine from Naco, Sonora in Mexico to Naco, Arizona through a narrow tunnel nearly as long as a football field.

Nine of the suspects were arrested, all but one of them in the United States, on charges of conspiring to import, possess and distribute cocaine, and other offenses. Those arrested on the U.S. side of the border were expected to appear before a federal magistrate in Tuscon Wednesday.

Jim Molessa, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said authorities have seized $1.5. million in cash and 2,600 pounds of cocaine as part of the investigation that began about a year and a half ago.

"This tunnel is novel," he said. "This substantiates something in Arizona we've been saying for a long time. Arizona's become the gateway for illicit drugs in the United States. We used to be the doormat."

Molessa said drugs smuggled into the country over the Arizona border are moved to Los Angeles for warehousing and distribution elsewhere, as well as to points in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

He said Arizona has become a distribution center in its own right: "Last week in Phoenix, 971 kilograms of cocaine was seized in a house used as a warehouse."

The tunnel -- about 50 yards long on the U.S. side and another 30-40 yards on the Mexican side -- is about 15 feet underground, about 3-4 feet in height and 4 feet wide, shored up with timber and in some places wood paneling, Molessa said.

He said it was discovered by agents executing one of seven search warrants.

"Somebody went to considerable expense to make sure this was a safe entry to go through," the DEA spokesman said.

He said the suspects were part of a "transportation organization that moved drugs into the United States. They're like Mayflower Moving. If you've got a substance you want moved, these are the people you call."

Molessa said the investigation was a joint effort by the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix, FBI, DEA, U.S. Customs, U.S. Border Patrol, Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Border Alliance Group which includes officers from the Cochise County Sheriff's and Bisbee Police departments.

He said Mexican federal police coordinated the investigation on the Mexican side of the border, and cooperated fully with U.S. and state authorities.

U.S., Mexico sign new pact to fight drugs

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