Tunneling for drug profit: The real underground networks

[UPDATED: This story has been updated to reflect more recent news about drug tunnels at the border.]

NOGALES, Ariz. — Successful tunnel-building requires engineering, planning, equipment, money, and a lot of hard labor.

But the Nogales Tunnel Task Force has found that with enough incentive, people on the Mexican side of the border in Nogales continue to find better ways to dig sometimes complex tunnels under the border to smuggle drugs. Tunneling itself, in fact, is a subsidiary business to the drug-smuggling trade, requiring skilled labor.

The task force was created in 2012 and is made up of Border Patrol agents, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, members of the Department of Homeland Security, and Nogales police officers. They focus on discovering drug smuggling tunnels and investigating where they lead, so to speak.

The diggers may not have engineering backgrounds, but those who have been digging these tunnels at the border since they were first discovered in the 1990s have gained genuine experience and engineering expertise over the years, not only in the construction skills themselves but in the skills needed to calculate exactly where a tunnel will come out after it burrows under the border, said Alex Garcia, a special agent of Homeland Security Investigations who leads the Nogales Tunnel Task Force. One method is to have a criminal accomplice on the U.S. side placed at the area where the tunnel is supposed to surface to help the diggers ensure they’ve reached the spot. That requires coordination and skill.

“If they’re doing something like that, that’s not a hell of a lot of engineering,” Garcia said. “They’re trying to guide it, they’re digging to a certain location.”

Kevin Hecht, deputy patrol agent in charge of the Nogales Border Patrol Station, said most tunnels are about three feet in diameter. The diggers – and it takes multiple people to get the job done – crawl on their bellies dragging power tools, elbowing forward, often putting the soil in large sugar sacks that once held about 50 pounds of sugar. The sacks are passed through a line of diggers back out to the entrance of the tunnel where it’s hauled to an inconspicuous spot.

Where do the skills to dig a tunnel come from?

In mining, of course, there is a long a history of amateurs digging, for example to discover gold, said John Kemeny, a professor in the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering at the University of Arizona. For legitimate miners, studying mining engineering includes focusing on safety and cost-effectiveness.

“It doesn’t mean you can’t do it if you don’t have the skills,” Kemeny said. “It just means that we want safety to be number one.”

Along the border, after a smuggling tunnel is found, the task force investigates while Border Patrol agents search it for drugs or people. Robots have most recently been used, mainly because a surveillance robot can be guided through a tunnel without exposing a human to attack. The Inukton, a tethered, waterproof robot that weighs about 80 pounds, is typically used to help search existing underground drainage pipes, which are often linked to by illicit tunnel-builders. Two more-recently acquired Pointman robots are wireless, small, weight about 14 pounds, and have a camera attached.

These robots help by allowing agents to see whether the tunnel is safe enough for an agent to enter. Agents also use air-quality meters to assure safety.

“It’s just exhausting. It’s crawling through a tunnel and sometimes you can’t turn around and you have to go backwards the way you went in,” Hecht said. “So if you go in head-first you have got to push yourself backwards to get back out.”

The task force looks for unusual movements of large amounts of dirt, Garcia said, adding that more than 100 tunnels have been discovered in a small area in Nogales in the past 15 years. On Feb. 10, the task force discovered a 481-foot-long tunnel, the longest they’ve ever found. The tunnel, which began in a house in Mexico and ended in a house on the U.S. side of the border, was not only long, but very sophisticated. It had been dug through different angles and elevations, and even had electrical power in some areas.tunnel2

On the U.S. side, when tunnels are discovered, task force members dump cement in all the way up to the border fence location. This can cost up to $20,000 to $30,000 per tunnel, Hecht said.

But in Mexico, the authorities often throw trash and other debris in the tunnel’s entrance, cover it with plywood then add concrete on top. Beyond the entrance of the tunnel, it remains untouched on the Mexico side. Diggers in Mexico know where these tunnels are and sometimes dig from another starting point that leads into the semi-closed tunnel — and when they hit the border they work around the concrete.

—[UPDATE] — On Friday, April 4, federal authorities in Nogales found and closed off an incomplete drug tunnel in Nogales that ran 449 feet from a house on the Mexico side to one on the U.S. side. LINK. … On Friday, federal agents at the border south of San Diego said they found two elaborate drug tunnels with rail transport systems. LINK.]—

Some sections of tunnels have plywood shoring to keep the shaft from collapsing, but other areas rely on the strength of the soil itself. Steve Gravley, director of the University of Arizona’s San Xavier Mining Laboratory, said wood works well to keep tunnels from collapsing, at least until it rots or until the ground above becomes too heavy for the plywood to support.

“I believe there’s a whole lot of unsafe conditions there,” Gravley said. “Who knows how many people lose their lives because it falls in?”

The task force and Border Patrol agents encounter three basic tunnel types: house-to-house tunnels; tunnels that link to existing underground drainage system; and tunnels that go from one lot to another or from a house to a parking lot.

Digging tunnels for smuggling is run as a kind of illicit construction business, said Garcia. Some are hired to dig, others are hired to transport the drugs. Often times these people don’t know who the boss is. The less they know, the less they can say if they get caught. Garcia said the task force is becoming more successful at identifying everyone involved — from the people funding the tunnel to those digging it, transporting the drugs and purchasing the drugs farther north.

Amber Cargile, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from Phoenix, said ideally, the goal is for the task force to stop them “right as they’re opening up after the drug organization has put all these resources into building it and then you take it down before there can ever be drugs into the United States.”

Like any other business, the motive is profit, which requires investment and a sense of marketing.

“Anytime you have something that costs less in Mexico and more in the U.S. you’re going to have people who are going to want to bring it to the U.S.,” Garcia said.

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