Oct 26, 2015

Drug Tunnels Along the U.S.-Mexico Border: High Costs, High Rewards

Newsweek: More than 80 tunnels have been discovered between Mexico and the United States since 2006, most recently this past Thursday after a six-month investigation by the U.S. government resulted in a large smuggling tunnel being uncovered, as well as 22 arrests and the recovery of 12 tons of marijuana.

The tunnel, about 32 feet underground, runs about 2,880 feet, between the Otay Center Warehouse in San Diego and another warehouse in Tijuana. In a statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Finn said the tunnel is believed to have a railroad system, lighting and electricity throughout.

The investigation that led to this bust included agents from Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Border Patrol. An undercover agent allegedly offered to transport drugs for Isais Enriquez-Acosta, 53, one of the men arrested as a result of the investigation. Enriquez-Acosta and the agent met at a San Diego restaurant on Wednesday evening to discuss moving the drugs through the tunnel, authorities said. This meeting was the catalyst for moving forward with the bust.

Tunnels like the one allegedly used by Enriquez-Acosta most commonly connect California or Arizona with Mexico. There is a concentration of such tunnels in the San Diego area, with 10 having been found there in the last nine years. This area has become particularly popular for tunneling because of the soil, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The clay soil is more stable than the sandy soil in surrounding areas, and therefore the tunnels are less likely to cave in.

The industrial complex where the latest tunnel was uncovered has become especially popular with smugglers, with two others being found in April of last year, and it's not just because of the sturdy soil. The industrial complex is particularly noisey, the New Yorker found, and that draws away attention from what is going on below. With highways, shopping centers and dozens of warehouses in the area, attempts to find any single tunnel are far more difficult than in areas that are less busy. "All of this has created a candy store for smugglers," an unidentified United States agent told the New Yorker in August. "This whole area belongs to them."

Tunnels of this kind are most commonly used by the Sinaloa Cartel that's run by El Chapo, a notorious drug kingpin who successfully escaped prison in a tunnel this year. El Chapo's first tunnel was built in 1989, Chron.com reported.

Building the tunnels is no easy feat, nor is recruiting workers to do so. The New Yorker investigation found over a dozen men were tricked into digging a tunnel in one instance, lured in with promises of other (legal) jobs. This crew was able to dig about 16 feet a day. For a tunnel of the length discovered this week, it would take roughly six months to complete, depending on the size of the crew at work and their experience in tunneling.

Speaking with Arizona's 12 News, DEA Phoenix Special Agent in Charge Doug Coleman compared the tunnel work to slave labor. "They're gonna grab these kids and are gonna hold them hostage until they finish the work," Coleman explained. "Sometimes [cartel leaders] pay them. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes when the job is over they will make them disappear."

Even with slave labor, tunnels of this kind can cost $1 million to $2 million to build. Marijuana estimated at $6 million in street value was waiting to be delivered through the tunnel discovered Thursday. Law enforcement action was two-fold, with Mexican authorities at the Tijuana end of the tunnel and members of the San Diego County Sheriff's Office at the American end. Mexican officers arrested 16 people and seized 10 tons of marijuana. American authorities arrested six others and recovered almost two tons of marijuana. Had the marijuana transportation been successful, the smugglers would've covered their tunnel expenses instantly.

But this tunnel apparently never got to see its glory days. Authorities believe it was just preparing to open, and the night of the bust would have been the first time it was used for significant drug trafficking. "We see a super tunnel open for business once every year or so," U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said in a statement. "Just when traffickers think they’re ready to move, we put them out of business. We continue to make good on our promise to relentlessly pursue and shut down any tunnel as soon as it opens."

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