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Tunnel discovered in Nogales; five arrested on Mexican side

The Associated Press


The Associated Press

NOGALES – U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agents executing simultaneous raids discovered a recently completed smuggling tunnel linking the two countries, officials said Friday.

The entrances to the tunnel, described as a passageway its builders planned to use to smuggle drugs, were discovered in a home in Nogales, Ariz., and a small residence in Nogales, Mexico, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.

Five people were arrested during the raid on the Mexican location. No arrests had yet been made on the U.S. side of the border.

Investigators tipped to the tunnel’s existence during its construction have had it under surveillance since April, and no drugs had been moved through it before authorities moved in, said Terry Kirkpatrick, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official.

The tunnel is among more than 40 that authorities have discovered crossing the border in Arizona and California since surveillance was increased following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Of more than 20 tunnels that have been found in Nogales, only about four, including the latest, have not been tied into the drainage system that runs cross-border beneath Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Ariz.

“To have a fully serviced, independent tunnel absent using the drainage system under these two cities is a significant event for us,” said Tony Coulson, assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Arizona.

The tunnel had nowhere near the level of sophistication found in a lined, lighted and ventilated tunnel at least the length of a football field discovered in 1990 connecting a warehouse in Douglas, Ariz., and a home in Agua Prieta, Mexico, Kirkpatrick said.

It crossed about 100 yards as the crow flies but was about 200 yards long because it meandered and dipped. The dirt walls were reinforced in areas with wooden supports and sand bags, and it had a lighting system but no ventilation.

“These aren’t engineers who went to the University of Arizona to design underground infrastructure,” Coulson said.

Agents who served a search warrant late Thursday at the tiny one-story home found the tunnel entrance hidden beneath plywood sheets weighted down with bags of dirt inside a utility room.

The home sits off a narrow, winding hillside street five minutes from downtown Nogales, about 60 yards north of a 12-foot steel border fence.

Searchers found picks, a jackhammer and other excavation equipment in the home, which was largely unfurnished.

The tunnel was the largest discovered along the U.S.-Mexico border since January 2006, when a tunnel extending nearly a half-mile from San Diego to Tijuana was found.

Federal officials said the tunnel discovered Thursday has been temporarily sealed and will be filled in after the investigation is complete.

Sonoran state police were brought into the case on Thursday, Coulson said. He acknowledged that Mexican law enforcement officials participating in such a raid and tunnel closure are at risk.

“Shutting down this tunnel, which is a big investment for them (drug smugglers), and denying a route into the United States, which we have effectively done, yeah, someone’s going to pay for that. We hope it’s not the cops, because it was U.S. law enforcement that asked them to react to this. But yeah, that’s a concern of ours.”

The Nogales tunnel was dug at night using jackhammers from the Mexican side, Kirkpatrick said. He said it probably took three months or longer to build.

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