Nogales Drug-Tunnel Builders Dig Right Under Port of Entry

Brady McCombs, Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), September 25, 2007

Officials didn’t have to look far to find the latest drug tunnel in Nogales—it was right under their feet.

Leaving trickery and deception in their toolboxes, would-be drug smugglers opted for the straight-ahead dive this time, hand-digging a crude tunnel directly beneath the southbound lanes of the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in downtown Nogales. The unfinished tunnel was a few feet away from where officers inspect thousands of cars daily in the northbound lanes.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers discovered the cave at about 10:30 Sunday morning when they noticed a sinkhole forming in one of the southbound lanes heading into Mexico, said Brian Levin, Customs and Border Protection spokesman. Officers peered into the hole using flashlights and mirrors, and discovered what looked like a man-made tunnel, he said.

They cordoned off the area and waited for U.S. Border Patrol agents to arrive. The agents entered the hole in the pavement and found the partially constructed tunnel. The tunnel is 18 inches wide by 2 feet high and 30 feet long, said Richard DeWitt, Border Patrol Tucson Sector spokesman. It didn’t have any bracing or lighting, and it was starting to collapse, he said.

The tunnel originated about 30 feet southwest of the port of entry in an east-west drainage system that runs parallel to the international border about 5 to 10 feet south of the line, DeWitt said. It came to an abrupt end about 5 to 8 feet into the United States, where officials found the sinkhole.

It’s the first tunnel found beneath the port, Levin said. Officials had found some tunnels beneath the employee parking lot to the west, he said.

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Mexican officials found numerous tools and materials used to dig the tunnel at its point of origin, DeWitt said. With no exit point in the United States, no drugs had been smuggled through the underground passageway, DeWitt said.

The discovery caused the closure of one of the three southbound traffic lanes Sunday and Monday at the port. The other lanes remained open, and traffic was moving normally, Levin said. Nonetheless, travelers going into Mexico through the port are being advised that they might face delays during heavy travel periods.

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Finding tunnels dug to smuggle drugs and people is nothing new along the Southwest border, and especially not in Nogales. Officials have discovered about 40 tunnels between Arizona and San Diego since Sept. 11, 2001, officials said.

From June 28 through July 12 this year, officials found three tunnels in Nogales. One measured 100 yards and had never been used, while the other two were longer and much-used.

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