Pubdate: Fri, 7 Dec 2007
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company


Federal Agents This Week Uncovered a Drug Smuggling-Tunnel That 
Stretched Across the Border in Tecate.

TECATE - The tunnel opening cut into the floor of a shipping 
container here drops three levels, each accessible by ladders, first 
a metal one and then two others fashioned from wood pallets.

The tunnel stretches 1,300 feet to the south, crossing the Mexican 
border some 50 feet below ground and proceeding to a sky-blue office 
building in sight of the steel-plated border fence.

Three or 4 feet wide and 6 feet high, the passageway is illuminated 
by compact fluorescent bulbs (wired to the Mexican side), supported 
by carefully placed wooden beams and kept dry by two pumps. The 
neatly squared walls, carved through solid rock, bear the signs of 
engineering skill and professional drilling tools.

Shrink-wrapped bundles of marijuana, nearly 14,000 pounds worth $5.6 
million in street sales, were found in the shipping container and in 
a trailer next to it, making clear the tunnel's purpose: to serve as 
another major smuggling corridor. Found Monday here in Tecate, it is 
the latest of 56 cross-border tunnels found in the Southwest since 
the onset of additional guards and fencing above ground after Sept. 11, 2001.

"I'm never alarmed when they are found," said a senior investigator 
with a task force of federal law enforcement agencies still combing 
the scene on Tuesday. "I am alarmed we don't find them enough."

The authorities believe that the increased border enforcement has 
helped deter illegal immigrant traffic and allowed agents to make 
more drug seizures. But they acknowledge that it has also been 
driving traffickers to redouble their efforts to find alternative 
ways of breaching the border.

It is not just tunnels. Immigration agents in San Diego say they are 
concerned about a spate of rickety boats found in the last year along 
San Diego County beaches, some having just dropped off illegal 
immigrants. People smuggled through official border crossings have 
been discovered tucked into hollowed-out dashboards in vans and 
trucks and in perilous pockets in vehicle undercarriages.

"It's like squeezing a balloon," said Michael Unzueta, the 
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in charge of the San Diego 
area. "The air has got to go somewhere."

But the tunnels are now found with alarming regularity, and often 
just under the noses of law enforcement officers. This latest one is 
a block from a Border Patrol station and next to a hill that agents 
often use to watch for illegal immigrant traffic. And in September, a 
Border Patrol vehicle became stuck in a sinkhole in San Luis, Ariz., 
50 yards north of a border fence, that turned out to be a collapsed 
segment of a smuggling tunnel under construction.

A total of 69 such tunnels have been discovered - 68 along the 
Southwest border, the other at the Canadian border with Washington 
state - since the authorities began keeping records on them in 1990. 
Of that total, 80 percent have been found, mostly through informant 
tips, since the terrorist attacks, when border enforcement was 
significantly stepped up. The longest, found last year in the Otay 
Mesa district of San Diego, stretched nearly half a mile.

Because of concerns that terrorists could adopt the tactic to smuggle 
radioactive and chemical materials into the United States, a military 
team checks each underground passageway discovered; no residue from 
such materials has ever been found.

Most of the tunnels are of the "gopher" variety, dug quickly and 
probably by small-time smugglers who may be engaged in moving either 
people or limited amounts of drugs across the border. But more than a 
dozen have been fairly elaborate affairs like this one, with 
lighting, drainage, ventilation, pulleys for moving loads and other 
features that point to big spending by drug cartels. Engineers have 
clearly been consulted in the construction of these detailed corridors.

The tunnel here has drawn additional scrutiny because just hours 
after it was discovered, the deputy police chief of the twin city 
across the border, Tecate, Mexico, was killed in a fusillade at his 
home, in what appeared to be a cartel assassination. The deputy chief 
had helped find the passage's Mexican end.

A Border Patrol agent on routine patrol discovered the tunnel when 
his drug-sniffing dog reacted to the smell of marijuana several 
hundred feet away. When the agent entered the container, the Border 
Patrol said, a man with a pistol in his waistband disappeared deep 
into the opening.

The tunnel, like the others found, will be sealed at the border and 
eventually filled with cement slurry.

Though few people have been prosecuted for activities related to the 
construction of these tunnels, a federal law enacted this year makes 
it a felony to design or build one.

There was no answer at the telephone number listed for the owner of 
the lot where the tunnel was discovered on the American side. But The 
San Diego Union-Tribune identified him as Flavio Aguirre, an auto 
broker in Tecate, Mexico, who told the paper that he rented the site 
a couple of years ago to men who said they operated a furniture-moving company.

The building where the tunnel opens on the Mexican side has been 
closed by the police. People who work nearby say that drug 
trafficking is common in the area but that they never saw anything 
unusual at the building, at least during working hours.

"They are all over here," one man said of drug smugglers, "but you 
don't see anything." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake