Pubdate: Mon, 13 May 2002
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2002 The Buffalo News
Author: Julie Watson, Associated Press


TECATE, Mexico - It was a typical bedroom with long curtains and a plush, 
floral rug - except the fireplace wasn't just for keeping things cozy.

When police removed the metal grill still holding charred logs, they found 
a secret tunnel to the United States.

Over the past decade, officials have discovered at least 16 tunnels along 
the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, all of them thought to be used for 
smuggling drugs. Six have been found since December, and federal law 
enforcement officials on both sides of the border believe five of them 
started operating after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This suggests to 
them that heightened U.S. border security is driving more smugglers to the 
underground route.

"We firmly believe there is a direct relation to our fortification of the 
border," said Vincent Iglio, associate special agent in charge of the U.S. 
Customs Service office in Tucson, Ariz.

The passage behind the fireplace was discovered in February in an isolated 
ranch house 20 miles east of the Mexican border town of Tecate. It had 
rails on which smugglers would send cocaine on electric carts on a 300-yard 
journey into the back of a staircase of a house in Tierra del Sol, Calif.

While it is believed to have gone undetected for 10 years, the other 
recently discovered tunnels seem newer and more hastily dug. One was still 
under construction when U.S. Border Patrol agents stumbled upon it last 
month. Another, found in March, was built to bypass the entrance of another 
tunnel that already had been discovered and sealed with concrete.

The sealed tunnel, found in December, ran 85 feet from a Nogales home in 
Arizona to a concrete drainage canal in Mexico, where smugglers covered the 
opening with a steel utility plate and resealed it with cement each time 
they used it.

U.S. Customs authorities believe it had been operating only for three 
months, in which time smugglers moved some $20 million worth of cocaine and 

Another tunnel believed put into operation since Sept. 11 and found last 
month ended in a parking lot near the U.S. Customs office in Nogales.

Authorities on both sides of the border are looking for more, but it's a 
tough challenge.

"We can't go around doing seismic graphs, and we can't check (houses) 
without a search warrant," said Donald Thornhill Jr., a Drug Enforcement 
Administration spokesman in San Diego.

The most elaborate tunnel was found 12 years ago. It ran 100 yards from a 
home in Agua Prieta, Mexico, to a warehouse in Douglas, Ariz. It had a rail 
car and the initial stages of a track and was accessed by using hydraulic 
lifts that raised the entire floor of the home's game room.

Years ago, street children lived in the drains and charged smugglers for 
the right to pass. Migrants also traipsed through the darkness until 
several drowned in a rush of floodwaters and the U.S. Border Patrol started 
monitoring the tunnels' openings on the U.S. side.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager