Found: Two Sophisticated Border Drug Tunnels

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

PHOENIX (AP) - Two drug-smuggling tunnels outfitted with
lighting and ventilation systems were discovered along the
U.S.-Mexico border, the latest signs that cartels are building
sophisticated passages to escape heightened surveillance on land.

Both tunnels were at least 150 yards long. One began under a
bathroom sink inside a warehouse in Tijuana but was unfinished and
didn't cross the border into San Diego. The Mexican army found the
tunnel Wednesday.

The other was completed and discovered Saturday in a vacant
strip mall storefront in the southwestern Arizona city of San Luis.
It showed a level of sophistication not typically associated with
other crude smuggling passageways that tie into storm drains in the
state.

"When you see what is there and the way they designed it, it
wasn't something that your average miner could put together," said
Douglas Coleman, special agent in charge of the Phoenix division of
the Drug Enforcement Administration. "You would need someone with
some engineering expertise to put something together like this."

As U.S. authorities heighten enforcement on land, tunnels have
become an increasingly common way to smuggle enormous loads of
heroin, marijuana and other drugs into the country. More than 70
passages have been found on the border since October 2008,
surpassing the number of discoveries in the previous six years.

A total of 156 secret tunnels have been found along the border
since 1990, the vast majority of them incomplete.

Raids last November on two tunnels linking San Diego and Tijuana
netted a combined 52 tons of marijuana on both sides of the border.
In early December 2009, authorities found an incomplete tunnel that
stretched nearly 900 feet into San Diego from Tijuana, equipped
with an elevator at the Mexican entrance.

The latest Arizona tunnel was discovered after state police
pulled over a man who had 39 pounds of methamphetamine in his
vehicle and mentioned the strip mall.

The tunnel was found beneath a water tank in a storage room and
stretched across the border to an ice-plant business in the Mexican
city of San Luis Rio Colorado. It was reinforced with four-by-six
beams and lined with plywood.

Investigators believe the tunnel wasn't in operation for long
because there was little wear on its floor, and 55-gallon drums
containing extracted dirt hadn't been removed from the property.

Coleman said investigators can't yet say for sure if the tunnel,
estimated to cost $1.5 million to build, was operated by the
powerful Sinaloa cartel. Still, authorities suspect cartel
involvement because the group from Sinaloa controls smuggling
routes into Arizona.

"Another cartel wasn't going to roll into that area and put
down that kind of money in Sinaloa territory," Coleman said.
"Nobody is going to construct this tunnel without significant
cartel leadership knowing what's going on."

U.S. authorities were investigating the Tijuana tunnel for three
months, said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and
Customs Enforcement. Authorities found no connections to the
smuggling operation involving the Arizona passageway.

The Tijuana tunnel was discovered inside a building advertised
as a recycling plant in an area where industrial warehouses are
common on both sides of the border.

The Mexican army said two tractor-trailers were found inside the
warehouse, along with shovels, drills, pickaxes, buckets and other
excavation tools.

The Mexican army estimated the tunnel was about 150 yards long
and more than 10 yards underground. The walls were lined with dirt
and wide enough for one person to get through comfortably.

It takes six months to a year to build a tunnel, authorities
say. Workers use shovels and pickaxes to slowly dig through the
soil, sleeping in buildings where the tunnels begin until the job
is done. Sometimes they use pneumatic tools.


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