Agents Find 14 Smugglers' Tunnels in Arizona

For smugglers, tunnels remain a part of underground strategy

October 31, 2008
By Stephen Ceasar
Arizona Daily Star

NOGALES, Ariz. - The soft rumble of putrid water is pierced by squeals of bats hidden within the cracks of graffiti-covered concrete walls.

Photo: Border Patrol agent Mike Scioli inspects a drainage outlet in the larger Morley Avenue tunnel in Nogales, Ariz. Smugglers often use the established Morley drainage system to burrow smaller tunnels in all directions. (A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star)

Foul-smelling clothes, garbage and wire intertwine, clinging to the bottom of an access ladder, still damp from the summer's high water levels.

It is within these walls of the Morley Avenue drainage tunnel in Nogales, Ariz., that drug and illegal-immigrant smugglers do their work.

In the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the U.S. Border Patrol uncovered 14 clandestine tunnels - up from nine in the previous fiscal year, agency figures show.

It was the fourth consecutive year that the number of tunnels discovered beneath the Arizona-Mexico border had increased, according to the agency. All the tunnels found last fiscal year were in Nogales.

The first tunnel found this fiscal year also was discovered Saturday in Nogales by Border Patrol agents. Covered by plywood and sandbags, the opening was about half a mile from the DeConcini Port of Entry and 175 feet north of the border, said Rob Daniels, Border Patrol Tucson Sector spokesman.

Using the storm drains, and sometimes their own tunnels, smugglers move their contraband - drugs or people - to destinations scattered about the city.

The Morley and Grand Avenue tunnels are the largest paths under the city and the most utilized by smugglers. Built to divert floodwater, the drainage routes also provide an avenue between the United States and Mexico for smugglers.

Of the tunnels found this past fiscal year, nine were directly connected to these two major drainage systems. The remaining five either led to buildings in the city or exited onto the street.

Photo: This opening in Nogales, Ariz., was barred after agents found it was a tunnel exit route. (A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star)

Several factors explain the increase in the number of discovered tunnels, according to Mike Scioli, U.S. Border Patrol Tucson Sector spokesman.

"It is a combination of three things that force them underground," said Scioli. "More boots on the ground, more fencing and better technology."

The sophistication of Nogales' tunnels found in 2008 ranged from the makeshift - those usually leading to the large drainage tunnels - to the elaborate, such as one that was equipped with a flooding system to destroy evidence if need be, said Scioli.

While the number of tunnels detected this year has gone up, the design quality has not.

None of the tunnels rivals the complexity of recently discovered underground routes leading from Mexicali, Baja Caliornia., toward Calexico, Calif., - they were equipped with ventilation, electricity and a rail-and-cart system, or that of a tunnel linking Agua Prieta, Sonora, to Douglas in 1990. The Douglas route had hydraulic and pulley systems.

Lacking sophistication but not ingenuity, smugglers use an array of tactics to connect to the Grand and Morley drains, says Scioli.

"They usually can burrow into the drainage by cutting a piece out," he said. "They get where they're going and burrow right back out and dig up."

The proximity of the tunnels is a dynamic some businesses along the tunnel route have learned to deal with, though they report visible activity has lessened in recent years.

"I used to see them from right here," said Ben Wenke, sitting behind a desk directly in front of the front door of the Crossroad Nogales Mission, 456 N. Morley Ave., where he is the director. "They would pull up with cars, and they would slip the drugs out from the drainage into the car."

Guillermo Soto, owner of La Michoacana Ice Cream and Frozen Desserts, 562 N. Grand Ave., says that while visible activity has slowed down, an opening in the Grand tunnel a few feet from his front door is a reminder of what goes on inside.

"It is lawless down there," said Soto, speaking in Spanish. "It is even worse when it rains - the water rises and people end up dead."

Access to the established drainage tunnels contributes to a long list of enforcement obstacles faced by the Border Patrol.

"It does two things: It gets us off their scent for a while and makes it easier for them since they don't have to do the work," said Scioli. "It is already built."

And while enforcement is difficult in a tunnel setting, the right information can lead to arrests and seizures, said Terry Kirkpatrick, assistant special agent in charge of Nogales for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"When we develop information on a tunnel, we establish a seven-day, 24-hour surveillance," said Kirkpatrick, who recently retired. "We monitor it to develop information leading to seizure and arrests."

ICE agents monitor the illegal tunnel until it is deemed to be no longer in use. Then a Border Patrol team enters the tunnel and searches it.

The team consists of agents whose main responsibility is patrolling the Grand and Morley tunnels and offshoot routes. Team members get specialized training, including how to handle confined spaces, possibly dangerous air and water, and above all, the uncertainty of what - or who - lies within.

"We have to find out where they originated, if there are people in there, if there is contraband," said Border Patrol Agent Bob Bushell, who has been a part of the Nogales tunnel team since 2005..

Confrontations do occur, be it with illegal immigrants, smugglers or even Mexican soldiers.

In 2000, for example, Nogales police officers found themselves face to face with gun-wielding Mexican troops inside a tunnel. A standoff ensued with each group yelling at the other to lower their guns, both unaware of who they were facing. The encounter ended without further incident.

The Border Patrol is additionally making use of technology, Bushell said.

The tunnel team uses a small robot with track wheels and equipped with a camera to enter tunnels before agents do. The "small tank," as Bushell describes it, takes the element of danger down a notch.

Darkness inside the tunnels is a hindrance, for both enforcement and smuggling purposes.

Any light alerts one group to the other, Bushell said. This is also the reason for the makeshift nature of the tunnels leading to and from the Grand and Morley routes.

"(The smugglers) are negotiating in a pitch-black environment," said Bushell. "Their efforts end up being very low-tech."

But the increase in tunnel detection is a step in the right direction, Scioli said.

"With the improvements we have made so far, we expect to be more proactive than reactive," Scioli said. "We expect to be able to stop them before they are in operation, and if they are out there, we expect to find them."

Stephen Ceasar is a University of Arizona student who is apprenticing at the Star. Contact him at 807-7776 or at