Smugglers go to great lengths to bypass barriers
Authorities are finding record numbers of tunnels on the U.S.-Mexican border, which signals that Mexican drug cartels are increasingly desperate to circumvent the hundreds of miles of new border barriers.
The majority of tunnels have been discovered along the border in Arizona, a state that has seen many new border barriers.
Since 2006, the year that Congress passed the Secure Border Fence Act, smugglers have bored 32 known tunnels into Arizona, more than all the tunnels discovered in the state before. Only four other border tunnels have been found outside Arizona since 2006.
As the U.S. government plans and builds more fences and vehicle blockades, law-enforcement agents expect to find more excavations. They say tunneling, a tricky and sometimes expensive undertaking, reflects smugglers’ growing frustration with the security buildup along the border.
“The activity levels have been skyrocketing. It has to do with all the new border security,” said Jose Garcia, who runs the border’s only tunnel task force for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Ysidro, Calif.
In the past two years, the U.S. government has been working to complete 670 miles of new pedestrian and vehicle fencing by the end of 2008. The Border Patrol also is hiring more agents.
The tunnels range from large concrete-reinforced ones allowing smugglers to pass through to tubes a foot or two wide that are designed to transfer drug bundles.
Last week, the Border Patrol found two crude hand-carved shafts branching off the storm drain system in Nogales. Earlier this year, the agents saw water spewing from a hole near the border fence in San Luis.
It led to the discovery of plastic tubing in a nearby house and the arrest of a Mexican engineer charged with designing the tunnel. The idea was to pull bags of dope through the small pipe using a rope.
Almost all the 90 known tunnels found along the border since 1990 were built for drug running.
Most drugs, however, are still smuggled through the open desert or concealed inside vehicles crossing the ports of entry.
Types of tunnels
In Arizona, houses on each side of the border can be as close as 100 feet, so simply built tunnels are the norm. Almost all Arizona tunnels are in tightly packed Nogales.
Still, one of the most sophisticated tunnels was the first one found, in Douglas in 1990.
Cocaine smugglers entered the tunnel from inside a house in Agua Prieta, Sonora. The opening was concealed under a pool table. A hydraulic system opened the false floor to reveal the entrance when an outdoor water spigot was turned on.
The longest, most elaborate border tunnel was found in Otay Mesa, Calif., in 2006. It stretched 2,400 feet, 85 feet below the surface. The concrete bore featured lighting, air ducts and water pumps.
Smugglers added a twist to a tunnel discovered in Nogales a few years ago, said David Petersmarck, acting special agent in charge for ICE in Nogales.
The tunnel surfaced in a parking lot within a stone’s throw of the port of entry. Smugglers parked a car over the opening, which was temporarily sealed with an underground jack.
When they were ready, smugglers would park a new vehicle, with a trapdoor cut in the floor, over the tunnel exit.
Then, someone in the tunnel would lower the jack and pass the load directly into the delivery car.
In July, in response to the spike in tunnels, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security solicited proposals for handheld tunnel detectors.
Tunnel-finding technology has existed for years. Ground-penetrating radar can see underground cavities, and sonic equipment can measure background noise, picking up sounds of digging.
But federal drug and border agents and military officers agree that low-tech methods such as investigating and observing work best.
“There isn’t any technology that’s foolproof. . . . The majority just don’t work,” ICE’s Garcia said.
In southern California in 2003, ICE formed the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, which Garcia runs.
His is the only such task force of its kind, bringing together ICE, the Border Patrol and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
The team includes personnel from the FBI, naval intelligence officers and the California Department of Justice.
The Border Patrol in Nogales has a less formal task force.
“(Border Patrol agents) walk the storm drains looking for anomalies,” Petersmarck said.
Typically, most tunnels are discovered when somebody tips off authorities to signs of suspicious work: digging sounds, activity at odd hours, numerous trucks.
Tunnels rarely last more than a couple of months before they are unearthed, border officials said.
Nevertheless, the drug smugglers keep digging.
“I have to give these cartels credit for investing in their future,” Garcia said, explaining that the biggest tunnels cost millions of dollars to build, plus the salary for elite engineers. “It’s like a corporation reinvesting to get more profits.”
As more border agents are deployed and more miles of fence go up, Marine Maj. Chris Downs, commander of the Pentagon task force, expects more tunneling.
“The harder it becomes for narco-traffickers to move their product through, I would expect an adversary to try other means,” Downs said.