Arizona Daily Star
August 9 2008
By Brady McCombs
U.S. officials have determined that part of a barrier constructed by the Border Patrol in a storm-water tunnel beneath Nogales is in Mexico — and must be torn down.
Representatives from the U.S. and Mexican sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission conducted a pair of surveys in the past two weeks and determined that nearly 8 feet of the 20-foot concrete barrier is in Mexico, said Sally Spener, U.S. spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission.
The commission informed officials with Customs and Border Protection of their findings and told them they must remove the barrier, and a metal gate that sits right behind it, because part of it also is on Mexican soil, Spener said. The agency agreed to remove the barrier and gate, she said.
Border Patrol officials said it was an honest mistake.
"We believed we had built in the United States," said Gustavo Soto, spokesman in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. "If we built any portion of it in Mexico, then obviously we are going to remove it."
The determination doesn't completely close the case of the barrier — the commission still must weigh in on whether it agrees the concrete barrier is to blame for flooding July 12 that caused an estimated $8 million in damage in Nogales, Sonora.
Officials with the Mexican section of the commission say technical data show the barrier reduced the flow of storm water through the tunnel by 40 percent, serving as a bottleneck and causing the water to back up on the Mexican side of the channel and pressure the aging drainage structure, which broke.
Mexico submitted a formal complaint against the United States for flood damage, asking for repairs or money.
The U.S. section of the commission has not finished a hydrological analysis, which is evaluating the extent to which the barrier blocked water flow, Spener said. While in Nogales, Ariz., last month to assess the situation, the commissioner of the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, Carlos Marin, said a large pipeline running across the tunnel on the Mexican side might have also inhibited water flow.
The concrete barrier was 5 feet tall until being reduced to 3 1/2 feet shortly after the July 12 floods at the urging of Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Ariz., officials. At the time, Border Patrol officials denied the requests to remove the barrier completely.
Now, they don't have a choice.
There is no timeline for the removal other than in the near future, Spener said. Soto said it shouldn't take officials too long to remove the structure.
The agency must also remove a metal gate that sits just north of the barrier and reaches the ceiling of the tunnel.
The concrete barrier and gate were built to prevent smugglers from sneaking through the tunnel and into the United States, a frequent occurrence.
A second metal gate that sits farther north in the tunnel will stay up. The Border Patrol will likely discuss constructing the second gate again, this time on U.S. soil, Soto said.
The two-gate system allows the agency to maintain a barrier even if one of the gates is damaged or breached, he said. The agency also has a camera system in the tunnel.
The Border Patrol built the new concrete barrier in the past year without notifying the commission, Spener said.
The commission requests that border agencies send it the plans for any work that could affect storm drainage.
Soto couldn't explain how or why the infrastructure division didn't notify the commission.
The location of the barrier came into question in the days after the July 12 flooding when mayor of Nogales, Sonora, Marco Antonio Martínez Dabdoub, and other officials were touring the tunnel and noticed the barrier appeared to be in Mexico.
In response, the boundary commission sent a delegation to Nogales on July 24 to determine whether the structure was on Mexican soil. It ended up taking officials until this week because there were not definitive markings for the international line inside the tunnel, Spener said.
"Because it was underground, it was a little trickier than perhaps we had first anticipated," Spener said.
The border runs diagonally through the tunnel and was marked by an unofficial painted yellow line on the floor. To ensure the border is properly marked, the commission plans on installing a permanent demarcation feature, Spener said.
In the meantime, officials drilled from the surface into the tunnel at two points and left brightly-painted drill bits that look like rebar. They might put a plaque, like those at the ports of entry, inside the tunnel to mark the line, she said.
The U.S. State Department is aware of the findings, but it was too late in the day Friday to find out what actions might be taken because of the findings, said spokeswoman Sara Mangiaracina. She issued this statement:
"We support the efforts of the IBWC (boundary commission) to resolve this. The IBWC is particularly well placed for helping to resolve this issue in a constructive manner."