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High-tech drug tunnel bust unlikely to dissuade smugglers

Law enforcement officials say they do not think they have seen the last of sophisticated drug-smuggling tunnels in Arizona.

Despite the discovery of a sophisticated border tunnel near Yuma a month ago, officials said the Sinaloa drug cartel may turn to tunnels even more often now to avoid detection as surface border security tightens.

“They feel like they’re being pressured,” said Ramona Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Phoenix. “I believe this will not be the last one we find.”

Jose Garcia, deputy special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations office in San Diego, said it would be “naive to think they’re (cartels) not looking at all their options.”

Tunneling isn’t a viable option everywhere on the border, but Arizona offers some natural advantages, authorities said. Parts of the Arizona and California borders offer soft rock for tunneling, and no natural barriers like rivers, authorities said.

“The uniqueness of the geography in certain areas of the border is going to play a part,” said Lauren Mack, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman.

While border tunnels have long been used by smugglers, authorities have seen more in recent years. And they have also reported an increase in “sophisticated” tunnels, like the one found near Yuma, which are larger and may have ventilation, lighting, even elevators and railcars to move large amounts of drugs.

ICE said it seized about 100 tons of marijuana in recent years connection with just four sophisticated tunnels in California – two in November 2010 and two in November 2011.

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The most common type of border tunnel found in Arizona is an infrastructure tunnel, a relatively basic structure that relies on existing features – as in a drainage tunnel under the border in Nogales – for part of its length. They may only be big enough to crawl through.

But sophisticated tunnels can be multiple football fields long and may be big enough for a person to walk through upright.

Authorities say sophisticated tunnels are harder to detect because they often start in concealed places, like a warehouse or business in Mexico, before emerging in buildings in the U.S.

Tunnels in Nogales, in contrast, have come up in the street or next to parking meters, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada has said.

Cartels have the finances and influence at their disposal to build more sophisticated tunnels at the border, Sanchez said.

Building a sophisticated tunnel “takes vast resources, and the ability to invest money,” Sanchez said. But major cartels, like the Sinaloa cartel, have deep-enough pockets, she said.

“It takes the leadership of a major drug cartel” to see a tunnel through, Sanchez said.

While the type of tunnels may be new, authorities say they will still rely on the tried-and-true tactics that have served them well thus far to combat the tunnels.

“We use the tactics that DEA has been using for many years: old-fashioned law enforcement tactics,” that include gathering sources and information and following leads, Sanchez said.

Garcia said that through preparation, diligence “and some luck,” his task force has been able to close many tunnels as soon as they were operational. Mexican authorities have seized tons of marijuana from unfinished tunnels as well.

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But that’s only part of the equation, he said.

“It’s not just about interdiction,” Garcia said. “Essentially an interdiction does nothing to catch the people involved.

“If you have a gopher in your yard and you just plug the hole, he’ll keep coming back up somewhere else,” he said.

Mack agreed that tunnel operations will likely continue to be a moving target.

“When you’re effective in one area of enforcement … the nature of the game is for the cartel to look for another location,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of a tunnel found this summer in Yuma County. That tunnel came up in San Luis, Ariz.


TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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1 comment on this story

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2 comments
Aug 15, 2012, 9:57 am
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Law enforcement is right - it haven’t seen the last of these tunnels. As long as we keep marijuana illegal the cartels will NEVER cease trying to find new ways to get their weed into our country. There’s just too much money at stake for them!

If we really want to beat the cartels and end the building of these tunnels then we have to legally regulate marijuana just as we do with alcohol and tobacco.

In 75 years the federal marijuana prohibition has NEVER prevented the use of marijuana in our country. It’s time to end this failed and deadly experiment and let our stores sell legally-grown marijuana to adults at prices low enough to prevent illegal competition.

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Click image to enlarge

DEA/Phoenix Division

A yellow industrial floor fan mounted to the wall helps ventilate a sophisticated Yuma County drug-smuggling tunnel uncovered by authorities in July.