SAN DIEGO – A man identified by prosecutors as an operative for Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel was charged with building two major cross-border drug tunnels, according to a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday.
Jose Sanchez Villalobos is accused of building, financing and overseeing the secret passages, which have proliferated along the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years as heightened enforcement on land has pushed smugglers underground. Previous prosecutions in connection with the tunnels have named low-ranking truckers and their supervisors who pick up loads of marijuana at warehouses in the United States after they already crossed the border.
Sanchez Villalobos, 49, was arrested by the Mexican army in January in the central state of Jalisco in connection with the seizure of $15.3 million two months earlier in Tijuana, Mexico. At the time, Mexico's defense secretary called him an operative for the Sinaloa cartel in Jalisco and Baja California states, which includes Tijuana.
The U.S. attorney's office in San Diego says he is alleged to be the highest-ranking member of a drug trafficking organization responsible for building cross-border tunnels, saying he supervised construction of the passages and oversaw movement of marijuana to the border. U.S. authorities have asked Mexico to extradite him.
The indictment, which was handed down in February, accuses Sanchez Villalobos of masterminding two of the most significant border tunnels ever found, both from Tijuana to San Diego.