EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The man believed responsible for building and operating two massive cross-border tunnels for smuggling drugs from Tijuana to California has been extradited to face charges in the United States, the Mexican government says.
Jose Sanchez-Villalobos, also known as “The Lord of the Tunnels,” was handed over to American law enforcement agents last week at the Toluca International Airport outside of Mexico City. He’s expected to face drug-related charges in a California federal court, Mexican authorities said on Sunday.
The charges stem from a 2012 federal indictment in the Southern District of California charging Sanchez-Villalobos with nine counts of conspiracy to distribute and import marijuana and four counts of building, financing and operating tunnels for the purpose of smuggling drugs into the United States. Most of the counts carry a maximum penalty of life in prison, according to the indictment.
According to court documents, Sanchez-Villalobos was a leader in the Sinaloa cartel supervising the movement of marijuana from southern Mexico to the border, its storage and transportation into the United States. He was a top lieutenant of now-jailed drug lord Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman tasked with constructing the tunnels, approving shipments and collecting fees from other traffickers who wanted to use the structures, court documents state.
Sanchez-Villalobos was arrested in Mexico in 2012 — during the administration of President Felipe Calderon — and the U.S. that same year requested his extradition. U.S. officials waited through the end of the Enrique Pena Nieto administration for the extradition, which comes just over one year after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office.
U.S. authorities discovered the first tunnel on Thanksgiving Day 2010 in a warehouse in an Otay Mesa industrial park. The 612-yard structure was equipped with rail tracks and originated from under a warehouse in Tijuana. A hydraulic steel door controlled the access on the Mexican side and led to a concealed elevator to lower the drugs to the tunnel, according to investigators.
An ensuing investigation by U.S. federal authorities led to the seizure of 22 tons of marijuana.
The San Diego Tunnel Task Force, a unit comprised of agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations and the Border Patrol, a year later discovered a second tunnel in the same industrial park. This tunnel ran 600 yards under the U.S.-Mexico border.
The discovery of the latter tunnel led to various seizures of marijuana totaling 32 tons, U.S. officials reported earlier.
It’s not unusual for drug smugglers to build tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border to get their drugs across. During a recent Border Report tour of the border, federal authorities in Arizona talked about multiple tunnels found in the Nogales area.
However, most of the times the structures are so narrow that smugglers have to crawl their way through one at a time, dragging their load behind them. Few tunnels are as long or wide as those attributed to Sanchez-Villalobos and the Sinaloa cartel organization.