August 31, 2011
Law-enforcement officials called to a house in Douglas last week found an unusual sight: a large hole in the floor of one room and mounds of dirt piled high in other rooms. The hole was the opening of a tunnel that drug smugglers were burrowing from the United States to Mexico.
It was the second tunnel discovered along the Arizona border in less than two weeks. Federal law-enforcement officials are concerned that the discoveries show that smugglers are increasingly using tunnels to smuggle narcotics into the U.S. to evade tighter border security.
This summer, the Border Patrol finished installing new fencing in Nogales that allows agents to see to the other side, making it more difficult for smugglers to avoid detection. The Border Patrol also has installed more than 300 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers along Arizona’s border with Mexico in recent years and added hundreds of agents.
“As smuggling organizations have more trouble moving their contraband both between the ports of entry and through the ports of entry due to increased technology and vigilance at the ports, then they will turn to more of these covert measures,” said Vincent Picard, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Phoenix.
Agents in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which covers most of Arizona’s border with Mexico, discovered eight tunnels through the end of July of this fiscal year. That is three more than the same period last year, said Mario Escalante, a Border Patrol spokesman in Tucson.
The eight do not include the two tunnels discovered in the past two weeks.
The house where the tunnel was found in Douglas is a few yards from the border with Mexico. The tunnel had collapsed, and smugglers were re-excavating it when Douglas police found it on Tuesday, following up on a tip from a resident.
Although the house was filled with dirt excavated from the tunnel, Mexican authorities were unable to find an entrance on the southern side of the border, Picard said.
He said the border tunnel was unusual as criminal organizations usually dig tunnels that start on the Mexican side and come out on the U.S. side because boring tunnels requires costly equipment such as saws, augers, lights, generators and wood to reinforce walls – tools that can be difficult to conceal but that may not draw as much attention in Mexico as in the U.S.
A week earlier, on Aug. 16, officials discovered a sophisticated drug tunnel in Nogales, Ariz., that was 90 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet high. The tunnel, which ran from Nogales, Sonora, into Arizona, was shored up by two-by-fours and plywood, similar to a mining shaft. It also contained ventilation tubing, tools and electrical cords.
The tunnel exited in a parking lot in Nogales, Ariz., near the Morley border gate. Smugglers concealed the opening by plugging the hole with a piece of concrete supported by a large floor jack underneath, Picard said.
The tunnel was discovered after ICE agents monitoring surveillance cameras noticed a white box truck parked in the lot. After the truck pulled away, ICE agents and Nogales police stopped the vehicle and found 2,600 pounds of marijuana inside, Picard said.
ICE and Border Patrol agents determined that the marijuana had been loaded onto the truck while it was parked over the hole leading to the tunnel.
Agents arrested two Nogales residents and a juvenile from Mexico who were inside the truck, Picard said.
He said most tunnels were used to smuggle drugs – not migrants – because smugglers want to draw as little attention to the passageways as possible.