December 14, 2010
by Amy Isackson
U.S. federal Authorities are trying out a new tactic in their hunt for subterranean drug smuggling tunnels near the border in San Diego. Authorities are going door-to-door to ask business owners to keep their heads up for underground activity.
"Hello?" shout federal agents as they peek their heads into a warehouse in Otay Mesa, an industrial area just a few blocks from the border fence.
"Hi, how’s it going?," asks an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, who asked not to be named for security reasons, as he introduced himself to the warehouse owner. "I don’t know if you know this or not," the agent tells the owner, "but Otay Mesa is a real hotbed for tunnels. Drug tunnels."
Just last month, federal authorities unearthed two sophisticated tunnels a few blocks from this complex, in the maze of streets filled with generic looking warehouses. The tunnels had electricity and ventilation. One had a hydraulic trap door. And they aren't the only ones that have been discovered in the area. Last year, there was one with an elevator. Back in 2006, authorities found the longest tunnel ever, a mile-and-a-half.
The subterranean passageways surfaced in warehouses nearby. "These are some of the things we’re asking the warehouse managers and owners to be looking for," says the agent, "Things like subterranean noises or jack hammering, without a visible road crew. Or, there’s no construction going on, but you’re hearing construction."
Agents are also asking business owners to be on the lookout for renters who pay in cash and people who keep odd hours.
Agents ask the warehouse manager if they can take a look around. The space is about as big as a football field. Hundreds of boxes bound for Carl’s Jr. restaurants in Mexico are stacked on wooden palates. "That’s toys for kids meals. This is the cheese," says Gabriel Andrade who manages the operation.
He says at least once a week he would pass by the building where they found one of the tunnels last month. He never suspected anything. "I think it is very hard to know. It is a lot of traffic of trucks. We don’t know and hear nothing," says Andrade. He says it’s also difficult to see anything. He says, for example, the neighbors keep their doors closed all day.
That peaks agents’ interest and they go next door. A forklift zips around. Workers unload boxes of chicken taquitos to be sent to U.S. grocery stores.
Margarito Calleja, the manger, says they keep the doors down to keep the sun off the food. "Really, we don’t communicate with people at other warehouses. You arrive. You go inside. You do your work. You leave at 6 in the afternoon. Adios. Bye bye," says Calleja.
There’s constant commotion in the area. Trucks rumble down the roads and ilde outside buildings a few blocks from the commercial border crossing. Joe Garcia, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, say that’s part of what makes Otay Mesa attractive to tunnelers. "You have shipping and distribution going on almost around the clock up here in Otay Mesa. There’s a lot of truck traffic. It is a perfect cover for them," says Garcia.
And that’s the case for the tunnel found on Thanksgiving day.
The ICE agent, who cannot be named, climbs down a ladder in a hole in the floor in the back room of a warehouse, into the tunnel. He pats the wall. "This is a hard clay that’s pretty common in the Otay Mesa area," says the agent. It's another reason tunnelers like this spot. "It holds its form pretty well. Right here you can see the jackhammer lines where the tunnel diggers jack hammered out this clay," says the agent. He says diggers can advance about 10 feet a day. He calculates this 2,000 foot-long tunnel took about 200 days to build. "The construction is impressive. You are navigating underground. Things like GPS don't work and you have to rely on a compasses. It would take an engineer," says the agent.
This tunnel began in kitchen floor of a home in Tijuana. It plunged down 90 feet and travel about a half-mile, beneath the border fence, before surfacing in the warehouse. Smugglers laid tracks in the tunnel and used a homemade cart to ferry tons of drugs underneath the border. They had carved out a room at the bottom of the tunnel where they stored bales of marijuana. With the two tunnels last month, agents seized about 50 tons of marijuana. That’s a record for the U.S.
ICE agent Garcia says they didn’t used to get enormous seizures like that. He says four years ago, Mexican authorities warned the smugglers that a raid was coming. "We know for a fact that in 2006, things were delayed so the cartel could pull their narcotics out of the tunnel," says Garcia.
He says that doesn’t happen anymore. He says now U.S. and Mexican authorities work together, almost like peers. And he says the extra eyes and ears of Otay Mesa business owners will also help authorities outsmart the criminals. "I think the only thing that stops it from being Swiss cheese around here is that it costs a lot of money to build tunnels. Do I think there's another out there? I'd be naive to think we got them all," ponders Garcia. "We're going to keep doing what we are doing, good investigative work." says Garcia.