TUCSON, Ariz. — U.S. Customs Service special agents Tuesday found a sophisticated drug tunnel running directly under the border between a wash in Mexico and a Nogales home facing the international fence.
Smugglers are believed to have moved 956 pounds of cocaine and 839 pounds of marijuana — estimated to be worth about $21 million — through the 85-foot dirt tunnel since late summer, when they began using it, said Vince Iglio, Customs acting special agent in charge.
All those drugs were seized at other sites, and two people were arrested Nov. 28 in possession of the cocaine, Iglio said.
“We believe that the tunnel was under construction for many months,” he said. “We had information that the actual smuggling started 2 1/2 to three months ago, and we surveilled it the whole time and we’re satisfied that we seized everything that came through.”
The rectangular-shaped tunnel, shored up throughout with lumber like a mine, was “one of the most complicated we’ve seen in that the type of construction was complex,” Iglio said.
The 4-foot high tunnel was strung with electricity and some tracks had been laid inside, suggesting that its operators planned to move drugs through on a dolly.
A mud-encrusted mechanic’s dolly, with a long rope attached, was found stored in the bedroom where a 30-foot vertical shaft leading to the tunnel emerged in a corner of the room, under wooden flooring and carpeting. A wide variety of lumber, from plywood to 2-by-16 beams, also was found in the house.
The tunnel ran 40-some feet, under the house and street on the U.S. side to the 10-foot steel-mat fence that separates the two countries, and a similar distance on the Mexican side.
The owner of the Nogales home does not reside there and is not believed to be implicated, while the occupant has not been found, Iglio said. Investigation will continue of others who were identified during the surveillance, he added.
On the Mexican side, the tunnel opening was cut out of the side of a concrete wash, with the hole replaced by a steel utility plate about 18 inches by 18 inches, resealed with cement each time the smugglers used it to bring in a load “and make it look like it was never touched,” Iglio said.
The care taken to disguise the entrance suggests that the smugglers were intent on keeping it from both Mexican officials and smuggling competitors, Iglio said.
He said the tunnel’s sophistication is a sign of the creativity, lengths and expense that smugglers will go to, but it also shows that “we are forcing them to use extreme measures to smuggle narcotics into the United States.
Iglio compared the new tunnel in quality of construction to an elaborate, concrete-lined, electrified 300-foot tunnel found in May 1990. That tunnel ran about 30 feet underground across the Mexican border between a home in Agua Prieta, Mexico, and a warehouse in Douglas with secret entrances on both sides, including a hydraulic lift.
“It’s more similar to that tunnel than to any of the others (in Nogales), and a true tunnel,” Iglio said.
The tunnel was the eighth discovered in Nogales since 1995 but the first in the border city to run directly beneath the international boundary.
All the others previously found in Nogales have led into sewer lines feeding into the Nogales Wash, a concrete-lined storm drainage canal system that flows north from Mexico beneath the international border into Nogales.
Though Customs’ highest priority is protecting the border from terrorist activities, the agency has “reprioritized our resources to address those persons who may wrongly believe that this time may be an opportune time to smuggle narcotics into the United States,” Iglio said.
The city of Nogales plans to excavate and seal the tunnel, he said.