• A Tucson bust in 1996 leads agents to the passage in Naco, cops say.
PAMELA HARTMAN Citizen Staff Writer
NACO – Using leads from a huge 1996 cocaine seizure at a Tucson warehouse, authorities have uncovered a trans-border tunnel they say was used to smuggle cocaine into Arizona for years.
One of the alleged tunnel ringleaders, William B. Dillon, and three others remained at large today. Dillon has homes in Naco and Tucson, authorities say.
Dozens of federal agents yesterday swooped down on a trailer 40 yards north of the border, where the tunnel was found. Agents also searched seven homes in Naco, Tucson, Bisbee and Sierra Vista.
Nine of 13 people indicted last week on drug charges have been arrested in connection with the tunnel.
”If I were a betting man, I’d say there are probably quite a few more (tunnels),” said Thomas Raffanello, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration for Arizona.
He said several other investigations are ongoing.
Authorities identified several of the suspects from leads cultivated in the investigation of a 5 1/2-ton cocaine seizure from a Tucson warehouse in 1996, said Guadalupe Gonzalez, FBI agent in charge in Arizona.
”The same individuals that we were able to tie to that 5 1/2 tons are also individuals indicted in this case,” he said.
But Gonzalez said he could not say if the cocaine seized in Tucson came through the Naco tunnel. He said records and phone numbers seized at the warehouse provided useful information.
No drugs were found in the Naco tunnel, but officials said they confiscated $1.5 million in cash last year from a Los Angeles home, and 2,668 pounds of cocaine from a rental truck in Tucson. Both seizures were related to the tunnel operation, they said.
Dillon and Jose E. Loya, 33, of Tucson allegedly controlled the transportation ring, Gonzalez said.
”Jose Loya and William Dillon are a transportation group, and they specialize in transporting contraband across the border,” the FBI official said. ”Their expertise is moving contraband into the U.S. and moving money back into Mexico.”
From the border, the cocaine was distributed in Texas, California, New York, Michigan and Illinois, he said.
Two suspects in the tunnel operation were arrested last week. The others were arrested yesterday, including one suspect, Francisco Valle Hurtado, who was arrested with the help of authorities in Naco, Son., officials said.
”Arizona has definitely become the gateway for almost all illegal products entering the United States,” U.S. Attorney for Arizona José de Jesus Rivera said at a press conference in Sierra Vista yesterday to announce the bust. ”As a result, our law enforcement efforts have increased substantially.”
The Naco tunnel begins at a brown, one-story home with a flowering rosebush and barred windows along the international border in Naco, Son. It extends about 40 yards into the United States and exits in the bedroom of a vacant trailer home, in the 2100 block of Hogan Street in Naco, Ariz.
The tunnel is large enough for one person at a time to crawl through, authorities said. The tunnel exit in the trailer was hidden under floor boards, which were covered with 5 to 6 inches of dirt, a DEA official said. The tunnel begins about 9 feet below the floorboards.
”We’ve heard stories and we’ve had confidential source information, but until today, we had no physical proof that a tunnel existed,” Raffanello said.
He said the tunnel could have been around for years.
”Some of the tunnels that are on the border have been there since the time that they smuggled Chinese illegals across the border,” he said.
In January, authorities found crude hand-dug tunnels in Nogales. One tunnel led to a nearby storm drain that runs under the border, and the other led to a still undetermined location 400 feet away in Arizona. Authorities believe one of the tunnels had been used to smuggle drugs.
In 1990, authorities discovered a highly sophisticated drug tunnel from Agua Prieta, Son., to Douglas that had been used to smuggle tons of cocaine across the border.
Neighbors near the Naco tunnel were reluctant yesterday to talk about activity at the trailer or at the home in Mexico where the tunnel begins. One neighbor said the trailer had been unoccupied for three years. At some point, someone began painting the exterior of the trailer and working on dry walls, the neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said.
A neighbor in Mexico said men would arrive at the house around sunset and stay into the evening. No women lived there, the neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said.
Late yesterday afternoon federal officers from the United States stood on the steel border fence and talked with their Mexican cohorts on the ground a few feet away in Sonora.
U.S. officers had entered the tunnel from the Arizona side, and were exploring it until they reached the Mexican side. Air was piped in from the U.S. side so the officers would have enough oxygen to breath underground, said DEA spokesman Jim Molesa.
Reporters were not allowed to view the tunnel on either side of the border yesterday.
Events leading up to discovery of Naco drug tunnel:
• Dec. 3, 1996: Acting on an anonymous tip, a drug task force finds 5.5 tons of cocaine in a Tucson warehouse on 17th Street.
• November 1998: Authorities seize $1.5 million from a home in Los Angeles.
• Dec. 8, 1998: Pima County sheriffs deputies seize more than 2,600 pounds of cocaine from a rental truck traveling on Interstate 10. Undercover agents had received a tip about the cocaine shipment and began watching a home in the Picture Rocks area, the Citizen reported at the time.
• May 19, 1999: Thirteen people are indicted by a federal grand jury on drug smuggling charges.
• Yesterday: Authorities serve three search warrants in Naco, two in Tucson, two in Bisbee and one in Sierra Vista. They discover a drug tunnel in Naco.
Thirteen people have been indicted in connection with a Naco drug tunnel. Nine are in custody.
• William B. Dillon, 35, of Naco, Son. (not in custody)
• Brian Aegerter, 26, of Tucson
• Jesus David Alvarez, 32, of Bisbee
• Kenneth Bishoff, 35, of Sierra Vista
• Jordan Trey Bull, 20, of Glendale (not in custody)
• Ira Friedman, 69, of Tucson
• Kenneth Friedman, 54, of Bisbee
• Mark Edward Griffiths, 40, of Tucson (not in custody)
• Steve Knipp, 48, of Sierra Vista
• Javier Dillon Villa, 21, of Tucson
• Jose E. Loya, 33, of Tucson
• Nieves Montenegro Nuñez, 42, of Fresno, Calif.
• Francisco Valle Hurtado, 31, of Naco, Son.
1990: An elaborate drug tunnel from Agua Prieta, Son., to Douglas is discovered. The tunnel begins in a home in Agua Prieta. It is hidden under a pool table. It exits in a Douglas warehouse.
January 1999: Two crudely dug tunnels are discovered in adjacent homes in Nogales. The tunnels do not go across the border. One leads to a nearby storm drain. The other leads 400 feet to a steel door underground. Authorities have not determined what is behind the door.
MAP: Drug tunnel