SAN DIEGO – A rat-infested storm drain where eight Mexicans were discovered 20 hours after trying to enter the U.S. illegally had been left open for hours by U.S. authorities at the nation’s busiest border crossing.
The Mexicans had entered the drain within about 50 yards of border inspectors. The entry was caught on surveillance tape but went undetected until a motorist reported it, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
None of the six males and two females were seriously injured in the 30-inch-wide pipe, but they were dehydrated and hungry after the ordeal.
Giobardo Andrade Villanueva, a rescued 16-year-old boy, said he agreed to pay a smuggler $2,500 to lead him through a drain surrounded by orange cones. The opening was in a U.S. buffer zone between the official border and inspection booths.
“He said, ‘We’re going to go through there,”‘ the teenager told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home in Tijuana, Mexico.
Andrade said he and the others stayed in the pipe because two smugglers, who left shortly after the group entered the drain, had ordered them not to leave.
“We were scared,” he said. “(The smugglers) told us to wait inside.”
CBP spokesman Vince Bond said authorities learned Friday night that a drainage cover was missing. He declined to elaborate, saying an investigation was continuing.
Rosa Cantera, who sells chips to motorists on the Tijuana side of the crossing, said she saw a motorist drop his visa in the storm drain about 4 p.m. Friday as he opened his door to tell a driver in front of him to keep moving.
A Tijuana street cleaner removed the rectangular drain cover with a screwdriver to retrieve the visa but then dropped the cover in the hole as he replaced it, Cantera said.
U.S. authorities left orange cones around the open hole until at least 2 a.m. Saturday, when Cantera said she saw 11 people enter the drain.
It was in one of the few vehicle lanes open at the time, probably making it difficult for inspectors to see people scampering between cars, she said.
“I’ve never seen anything like that happen, and I’ve been here for many years,” Cantera, 45, said. “They saw the opening, took advantage of it, and went inside.”
CBP said a motorist reported around 2 a.m. Saturday that about a dozen people had entered the opening. Authorities worked until 9:30 p.m. Saturday to find and rescue them.
A surveillance tape, which CBP declined to release, showed eight people entering the drain, Bond said.
Authorities initially suspected the group had quickly made it about 100 yards through the pipe to an open channel in San Diego.
Agents shouted and shined lights inside the pipe but got no response, said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement. ICE sent in a robot, which repeatedly got stuck.
“There was so much slush and debris inside,” Mack said. “It didn’t appear that anyone was in there.”
Border Patrol agents who crawled through the pipe Saturday night found the group “just kind of laid up in there,” said spokesman Richard Smith.
Andrade said rats and other animals crawled around him as he waited inside the pipe. He moved forward on his stomach and urinated in his pants.
Some others in the pipe were crying.
“I was thinking I could die inside,” said Andrade, whose mother sells gum to motorists on the Tijuana side of the crossing.
Illegal immigrants sometimes cross the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico border through drainage systems, particularly through large passages connecting Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico.
What made Saturday’s crossing attempt unusual was that it happened in front of inspection booths in one of the middle lanes of the San Ysidro border crossing, where about 40,000 vehicles enter the U.S. daily, and motorists wait for hours during peak times.
One member of the group, Mauricio Arellano Cabrera of Guadalajara, Mexico, was charged with re-entering the country after being deported, a felony.
Court documents say he told investigators he had agreed to pay a smuggler $2,000 when he reached Santa Ana south of Los Angeles.
The others were returned to Mexico. Andrade said he had been headed to Madera near Fresno, to look for his uncle and find work. He lives with his 38-year-old mother and two older sisters, 21 and 18.
The government welded the hole shut on Saturday, CBP said.