Pubdate: Sun, 15 Jan 2017
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2017 Los Angeles Times
Author: Richard Marosi


[photo] A cross-border drug smugglers' tunnel that had been shut down but
left unfilled on the Mexican side was found to be back in operation in
December, officials said. (Mexico attorney general's office / Associated

Mexican drug cartels have burrowed dozens of tunnels in the last decade,
outfitted them with rail and cart systems to whisk drugs under the U.S.
border and, after being discovered by authorities, abandoned them.

But some of the illicit passageways live on.

At least six previously discovered border tunnels have been reactivated by
Mexican trafficking groups in recent years, exposing a recurring
large-scale smuggling threat, according to U.S. and Mexican law
enforcement officials.

The breaches of border defenses, most recently in December, occur because
Mexican authorities, unlike those on the American side, do not fill the
tunnels with concrete once they have been discovered. Mexican authorities
say they lack the funds.

Instead, only the tunnel openings are sealed. That allows traffickers to
simply dig a new entry point to access the largely intact subterranean
passageways leading to the U.S. border.

The security lapse is a boon for traffickers, experts say, saving them
time and money and reducing their risk of being caught as they haul away

"The biggest threat is that it's a huge open invitation for drug
traffickers, and it's definitely going to be taken advantage of," said
Michael Unzueta, a former special agent in charge of Immigration and
Customs Enforcement in San Diego.

On the U.S. side, drug tunnels have been filled since 2007, after The
Times reported that they were being left unfilled because of budget
constraints at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Prompted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who called the tunnels a
"national security risk," the agency has filled every large tunnel up to
the border ever since, according to Department of Homeland Security

U.S. authorities at the time anticipated that traffickers would reactivate
the tunnels, and some recommended that the U.S. consider paying Mexico's
costs of filling the tunnels on its side. But funding sources were never

Since 2007, it has cost Customs and Border Protection $8.7 million to fill
drug tunnels, according to a 2016 report by the Department of Homeland

Now an estimated 20 large tunnels, constructed before and after 2007,
remain largely intact on the Mexican side, according to U.S. and Mexican

The tunnel issue could take on more urgency under the incoming
administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has made border
security a central feature of his campaign. Border patrol agents who are
part of Trump's transition team said they plan to bring it up with the new

"We don't want to leave infrastructure in place in the form of
half-completed tunnels for [cartels] to use," said Shawn Moran, vice
president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union of agents whose
leaders have advised Trump on border security issues. "The cartels are by
no means stupid. They're taking the idea to work smarter, not harder, when
it comes to these tunnels."

When border fencing went up, traffickers moved underground. Since 2006
there have been 148 tunnels built, according to the DHS, most of them in
Arizona and California.

The biggest underground threats now come from what border officials refer
to as "super tunnels," which cost millions of dollars to dig and feature
sophisticated touches like lighting and ventilation systems that extend
for hundreds of yards down wood-beamed passageways.

Most have been constructed in San Diego's Otay Mesa region, 20 miles south
of downtown.

The truck-clogged landscape of nondescript warehouses has long served as
ideal cover for underground incursions emanating from a light industrial
area directly across the border in Tijuana.

It was here in November 2010 that U.S. and Mexican authorities made one of
the biggest drug busts ever, seizing 30 tons of marijuana from warehouses
linked by a 600-yard passageway.

At a news conference in front the warehouse in San Diego, authorities
dubbed it the "election day tunnel," allowed reporters into the depths and
declared a victory against traffickers.

"Frustrated by our defenses, they're literally going underground, but
we're thwarting them there as well," said John Morton, then director of
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Afterward, mixing trucks on the San Diego side poured enough concrete to
fill the tunnel all the way to the border two blocks away. On the Mexican
side, workers poured concrete into the tunnel opening and declared it

Four years later, in April 2014, U.S. and Mexican authorities were back in
the same area. Traffickers had dug 700 yards from a window repair shop in
Tijuana to another warehouse in San Diego.

When U.S. agents toured the tunnel they noticed that one segment was lined
with older-looking electrical wiring and wooden support beams. It also had
two sets of ventilation and cart tracks.

The election day tunnel, they determined, had been reactivated -- about
1,025 feet of it.

According to coordinates provided by Homeland Security Investigations, a
branch of ICE, traffickers appeared to have started digging the tunnel at
the window repair shop, then burrowed across Jose Maria Velasco and Jose
Lopez Portillo streets, where they tapped into the existing passageway.

From there, they had a free run to the border, and were able to reuse the
electrical wiring and support beams.

"It saves them time and money because they don't have to dig as far. It's
already there," said Joe Dimeglio, a supervisory special agent with ICE
Homeland Security Investigations. In recent years, traffickers have
reactivated or tried to reactivate at least four other tunnels in the Otay
Mesa area, most recently last month near Tijuana's international airport.

Two more tunnels have seen resumed activity under the Mexicali-Calexico
border, 100 miles east of San Diego, according to Homeland Security

The election day tunnel remains largely intact in Mexico, concealed inside
a high-walled compound where a security guard spends his time watching
television on a torn-up sofa. The guard, Victor Mendiola, 55, is there
because the property remains under the control of Mexican federal

Mendiola said his responsibility includes preventing people from accessing
the concrete-sealed opening, which now has added layers of garbage and

But his presence, he admits, isn't much of a deterrent. Clustered around
the building on all sides are car repair shops, warehouses and homes, any
one of which can serve as a staging ground for diggers wanting to tap into
the tunnel beneath his feet.

"I'm here every day, but they could do it again," Mendiola said. "It's
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