Friday, November 5, 2010

Nogales underground: drug tunnel capital of U.S.

November 4, 2010
By Som Lisaius

NOGALES, AZ (KOLD) - The DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales is almost always busy.

Bottle-necked vehicles moving north and south, not to mention lines of pedestrian traffic receiving the same kind of scrutiny from federal agents holding semi-automatic rifles.

"So much attention is paid to what's going on above ground," says New York Times writer Marc Lacey, on assignment in Nogales, researching the area's underground passageways. "People crossing, there's all this. There's a fence being built."

Perhaps this is why more smugglers are increasingly going underground. And in this case, directly below the DeConcini Port of Entry.

Agent Kevin Hecht is a tunnel specialist with the United States Border Patrol in Nogales.

"In this particular area they were deep enough," Agent Hecht says, pointing the port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border. "And with all the traffic disguising the noise, they were able to crawl through and dig and design the tunnel."

This tunnel was recently identified thanks to a tour bus that made the lane give way, exposing the illicit passageway.

As bold as it may seem, drug tunnels beneath the port of entry aren't that uncommon.

At least four holes patched with cement represent other failed attempts at the port of entry. Before this tunnel could be filled similarly, we decided to take a closer look.

"We are literally going inside the tunnel," I say, taking my photographer Andrew Brown into the hole with me. "It's about as primitive as you can get. If I were to get down on my hands and knees I'd probably be able to crawl my way through this space. But as you can see, it's only a few feet wide, a few feet deep."

But that's all it takes to get from one country to the next.

Over the last four years at least 51 unauthorized tunnels have been identified between Nogales, Ariz. and Nogales, Sonora--making it the drug tunnel capital of the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Tijuana is known for its tunnels," Lacey says. "But no other place has as many as Nogales--and I'm here checking that out."

In many cases, the tunnels are only 20 to 30 feet long, connecting Mexico with an underground drainage system in the U.S.

That same drainage system runs parallel with the DeConcini Port Entry. It creates quite a mess, every time a new tunnel is located.

"We only have so many lanes here at DeConcini to process traffic," says Craig Hope, assistant port director at DeConcini. "This lane in particular is used by buses. And as you can see, we had to shut the lane down and it's been closed since."

Back below the surface, I try to wrap my mind around the measures being taken by so many people, for so many years.

"It doesn't get much more claustrophobic , it doesn't get much more daunting," I say, looking into the camera. "But again this is a real-life depiction of what these people are willing to go through to get their product and themselves into the United States."

The tunnels are often carved with primitive hand tools--a process that can take months, even years to complete.

Once identified, the tunnels are filled with cement in just a matter of minutes.

In this case, another tunnel threat avoided. Even though the next would be identified literally that same day.

"Just a stunning thing to see how desperate people are," says Lacey, visibly pleased with what he's witnessing. "How good the business is. That they're using any means necessary to get across."

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