A truck driver was sentenced Monday to nearly 22 years in prison for hauling about 10 tons of marijuana that was smuggled through a sophisticated cross-border tunnel, one of the largest marijuana busts in U.S. history.
Carlos Cunningham, 28, acknowledged carrying 19,400 pounds of marijuana in his trailer when he was arrested Nov. 2 at a weigh station in Temecula, southeast of Los Angeles.
"That is an extraordinary, remarkable amount," said U.S. District Judge Larry Burns. "It's enough to fill a house."
U.S. authorities later seized 16 tons in a San Diego warehouse where the tunnel ended, and Mexican authorities reported seizing nearly five tons on the Mexican side of the tunnel, bringing the total haul to more than 30 tons.
Later in November, U.S. authorities found another cross-border tunnel inside a warehouse of the same San Diego industrial district, leading to seizures of nearly 21 tons of marijuana on both sides of the border. Cunningham was not charged in connection with that passage.
U.S. investigators suspect that both tunnels were overseen by Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, whose leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is that country's most-wanted drug lord. They were lined with rail tracks, ventilation and lighting.
Burns sentenced Cunningham to 21 years, eight months in prison for conspiring to distribute marijuana, more than two years longer than what prosecutors recommended. He said he would consider reducing the punishment if Cunningham continued to cooperate with investigators.
"It is not a secret that Mr. Cunningham is cooperating with investigators," the judge said.
Prosecutors alleged in a court filing this month that Daniel Navarro was "the transportation manager and distributor" for both passages and they identify him as Cunningham's boss. Navarro has pleaded not guilty to charges in connection with the second tunnel.
Cunningham, of Oceanside, told authorities that he was being paid $10,000 to drive the trailer from the San Diego area to Los Angeles, according to court records. When he pleaded guilty in January, he admitted hauling large loads of marijuana on "multiple occasions" in July, August and November.
"I'm sorry, your honor, for what I've done and I really regret my decision," Cunningham told the judge.
His attorney, Gretchen VonHelms, said Cunningham's role was limited to driving the limited distance in Southern California.
"He was essentially a chauffeur," she said.
Cunningham pleaded guilty to drug charges in 2002 and 2006. In 2002, he was accused of smuggling 110 pounds of cocaine. In 2006, he acknowledged driving with 38 pounds of marijuana in a secret vehicle compartment in California's Imperial Valley.
Another driver, Jose Guadalupe Hernandez, pleaded guilty earlier this month for conspiring to distribute nearly 14 tons of marijuana in connection with the second tunnel discovered in November. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June.