Things That Matter

El Chapo’s Tunnel Architect Pleads Guilty To Smuggling Charges And Swears He Is a Changed Man

Photo Courtesy Drug Enforcement Administration

Last Wednesday, José Sánchez Villalobos pled guilty to federal drug-smuggling charges and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Sánchez Villalobos was a high-ranking Sinaloa cartel member and close associate of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Sánchez Villalobos was known for being the mastermind behind El Chapo’s network of drug smuggling tunnels. Experts believe that with good behavior and time served, he will be free in a matter of months.

José Sánchez Villalobos’s nickname is “El Señor de los Túneles”. He is notorious for his involvement with the construction of the underground drug-smuggling system.

An investigator looks at a motorcycle rigged on a special rail system with two metal carts in front of it (YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2012, U.S. authorities called El Chapo’s tunnel network the “most elaborate smuggling tunnel” ever found on the U.S.-Mexico border. In court, 58-year-old Sánchez Villalobos fessed up to organizing, financing, and overseeing tunnel operations of the Sinaloa cartel from Tijuana to San Diego.

U.S. authorities describe José Sánchez Villalobos as a former high-ranking member of El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel. His duties included overseeing the transport of marijuana from southern to northern Mexico. Investigators called him a “regional manager” for the Sinaloa cartel in Baja California and Jalisco.

In November of 2012, authorities discovered a 2,200 ft. tunnel that ran from Tijuana to San Diego.

An investigator inspects the alleged tunnel through which Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman might have escaped from the Altiplano prison. (YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

According to reports, the tunnels were “sophisticated” with tracks, a ventilation system and even elevators. Since then, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection have found even more subterranean U.S.-Mexico tunnels. But Sánchez Villalobos is only being charged for constructing two of them.

At the time, U.S. authorities were excited to have caught one of the masterminds behind the seemingly endless tunnels they were finding. ICE even set up a special force to investigate the tunnels called the “San Diego Tunnel Task Force.”

“This investigation clearly underscores our resolve to track down those responsible for constructing and financing the sophisticated tunnels we’re increasingly seeing along the San Diego-Tijuana border,” said senior ICE officer Derek Benner back in 2012.

Sánchez Villalobos was arrested in Mexico in 2012 where he spent eight years in prison. He was extradited to the U.S. in in January of 2020 and has since been in U.S. prison awaiting trial.

Last Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Anello said that Sánchez Villalobos is “a totally different man today than when the conduct was committed.” Sánchez Villalobos himself says he is a changed man. “I promise I will not do anything illegal again, because the easy way to get money is usually the bad way to get it,” he said.

Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera aka “el Chapo Guzman”, is escorted by marines as he is presented to the press on February 22, 2014 in Mexico City. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2017, El Chapo was extradited to the U.S. where he was faced with a 17-count indictment. On July 17th, 2019, he was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. His wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, turned herself in to U.S. authorities in February of 2021. In June of 2021, Coronel Aispuro pled guilty to a range of charges. She could face up to life in prison and a $10 million fine.

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