By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - U.S. federal prosecutors have indicted a man they describe as an important member of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel who organized efforts to build two sophisticated smuggling tunnels under the U.S. border from Tijuana to San Diego.
Jose Sanchez-Villalobos, who is being held in a Mexican jail after his arrest in January on money-laundering charges, was indicted by a U.S. grand jury in February. But prosecutors did not unseal the indictment until Wednesday.
Sanchez-Villalobos, 49, was indicted on 13 counts including conspiracy, building and financing tunnels, and smuggling marijuana through them. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Federal authorities charged Sanchez-Villalobos with leading the construction and use of two of the tunnels, discovered in 2010 and 2011, according to the indictment. The 2010 tunnel bust yielded more than 17 tons of marijuana, while authorities recovered about 26 tons connected to the 2011 tunnel, according to the indictment.
Officials from the Border Tunnel Task Force said the 2011 tunnel was the most sophisticated they had seen, with an elevator, ventilation, electrical wiring, and a rail and cart system to move the marijuana. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents said the tunnel had cost at least $1 million to build.
Federal investigators from the task force have discovered four tunnels between Tijuana and San Diego since October 2010, ranging in length from 600 feet to nearly a half mile.
The tunnels descend more than 60 feet underground and travel under the border from residences and warehouses in Mexico to rented warehouses in the United States.
Tons of marijuana smuggled through the tunnels were transported farther into the United States by trucks.
Sanchez-Villalobos, whom prosecutors describe as the Sinaloa cartel's regional manager for Baja, Jalisco and Tijuana, was actively involved in the tunnel construction, according to the indictment.
(Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)