Drug Runners' Tunnels Test the Agents in a Border

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Mar 1, 2001.

  1. By Michael Janofsky
    Source: New York Times

    The authorities in this border town today discovered a cache of illegal drugs inside yet another hand-dug tunnel connected to a sewer line that smugglers had used to get drugs out of Mexico and into the United States.
    About 350 pounds of marijuana was pulled out of a hole in the concrete floor of a commercial garage less than a mile from the Mexican border. It was a modest discovery by any measure, worth only $300,000 or so on the street, said James A. Woolley, assistant special agent at the Drug Enforcement Administration's offices in Tucson.

    But this was the second such tunnel found here in three days - and the seventh in the last six years - evidence that smugglers were still using the hilly landscape of Nogales to their advantage. In each case, the tunnel was connected to a city sewer line that was connected in turn to underground culverts that carry water and debris from Mexico into southern Arizona.

    Typically, smugglers walk or crawl the drugs through the culverts and the sewer lines before leaving the contraband for someone else to fish out from the floor of the hand- dug tunnels here and load onto vehicles for transport northward.

    Ingenious? Not especially, said Kyle E. Barnette, associate special agent in charge of the Customs Service office in Tucson, whose agents scored big on Monday, intercepting 840 pounds of cocaine at a house to which one 25-foot tunnel led not far from the garage. He said agents believed the cocaine to be 95 percent pure, with a street value well above $6 million.

    "If you can imagine it, the smugglers can, too," Agent Barnette said of the various means of drug transport that border agents have encountered over the years. "And just because we catch them doesn't mean they won't try again."

    Agent Barnette said some of the tunnel discoveries had led to arrests. But the drug business has become so sophisticated, he said, that most people involved in it perform only one task, like dropping the drugs at the mouth of a culvert, moving them through or pulling them out of the tunnel for delivery to a driver.

    "It has become a very specialized operation," said Matthew C. Allen, group supervisor for the Nogales office of the Customs Service. "There's the grower, the marketer, the transporter, and that creates an insulating factor. Most of these people involved don't know each other."

    For that reason, he said, American and Mexican authorities often cannot easily identify others involved in the trafficking through arrest of someone who might have dug the tunnel.

    In both cases this week, the authorities said, there have been no arrests, and the property owners are still being sought.

    Nogales has always been a busy spot for drug running, as well as the smuggling of illegal immigrants, on the Mexican border. Michael Unzueta, the Customs Service's deputy executive director, Operations West, said the town generally ranked among the most active places for drug smuggling and interdiction, along with San Ysidro, Calif., Yuma, Ariz., and El Paso.

    Already this year, the Customs Service has recorded 50 arrests, 30 indictments and 18 convictions related to drugs in the Nogales area. The tallies are slightly behind those for the corresponding period last year, but numbers alone rarely measure effectiveness, Agent Barnette said, adding: "Imagine squeezing a water balloon. You increase pressure one place, the water goes somewhere else. Same with smugglers."

    The lure of Nogales, a high-desert town of about 22,000 across from a Mexican city of the same name with nearly 20 times the population, has been the rugged terrain. Well below the single-family homes that dot the hills on both sides of the border, underground culverts connect the two countries and open several miles inside Arizona, providing smugglers a cozy means of conveyance. By cutting through the sewer lines to which the culverts connect, the smugglers gain access to drop points at the end of the hand-dug tunnels.

    Most of the tunnels, elbowing from horizontal to vertical, have been dug through concrete on the floors of houses, although in 1999 investigators found one connected to Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, a majestic old building on a bluff about a half-mile from the border.

    The commercial garage where the latest tunnel discovery was made today sits across from a busy shopping center and offices of the state's Economic Security Department. Pointing to it, Agent Woolley said: "The novelty of this is that it's an operational business. Nobody would have thought anything of it."

    As investigators pulled bundles of marijuana out of the tunnel and gathered other evidence, Agent Woolley turned to Mr. Unzueta, the Customs Service official, who was visiting the area from Washington. "It's been a good week for Nogales," Agent Woolley said. "We ain't winning, but at least we're making dents."

    Source: New York Times (NY)
    Author: Michael Janofsky
    Published: March 1, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
    Address: 229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
    Fax: (212) 556-3622
    Contact: letters@nytimes.com
    Website: http://www.nytimes.com/
    Forum: http://forums.nytimes.com/comment/
  2. I read this in my NYT e-mail this morning. They had a pic of the hand-dug tunnel and those guys really do what they can to get us our pot. :D

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