By Anna Cearley
Jun 18, 2003
TIJUANA - At first, the Mexican federal police officer patrolling the border fence east of Tecate thought the fist-sized opening in the ground was a rabbit hole.
But when he shined a flashlight into the space June 6, he found a tunnel about 40 feet long that stopped about 12 feet from the border fence.
It was the sixth tunnel found in the San Diego County border area since January 2002 and, authorities say, is another indication that the region has become a hot spot for secret passageways.
U.S. and Mexican authorities believe the tunnel was meant to transport drugs. They dismissed Baja media reports that the tunnel was part of an underground well structure.
According to a study commissioned recently by the San Diego office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, five of eight tunnels found along the U.S.-Mexico border between January 2002 and April 2003 were in this region.
With the latest discovery, the numbers are six of nine tunnels.
Michael Vigil, special agent in charge of San Diego's DEA office, commissioned the study to provide data on 21 tunnels found between 1990 and April 2003. Seven were in the San Diego County region, and 14 were in the Arizona region.
"Basically, what we are doing is an assessment in terms of the tunnels so that we can be a bit more proactive," Vigil said.
Authorities on both sides of the border believe that drug traffickers are relying more on tunnels to avoid tightened security at U.S. ports of entry following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Some officials also worry that the passageways could be used by terrorists.
The Mexican Federal Preventive Police discovered the latest tunnel, but they tried to keep their find secret for a week while they staked out the property in hopes of capturing someone.
When no one showed up by last weekend, they notified U.S. drug enforcement authorities, who began conducting their own investigation.
The tunnel was found in a rural area east of Tecate, about half a mile from the site of a more sophisticated tunnel discovered in February 2002. That 1,000-foot-long tunnel was linked to the Arellano Félix cartel, which is considered the region's dominant drug trafficking organization.
Miguel Angel de la Torre, a high-ranking official with Mexico's Federal Preventive Police, said the two sites could be related.
"They may have started this tunnel at the time that the other tunnel was closed," said de la Torre.
Both of the sites are about 70 miles east of San Diego. Intelligence work led to the discovery of the tunnel in 2002. The alertness of Mexico's Federal Preventive Police led them to the latest tunnel after they found what was apparently the tunnel's ventilation hole.
The tunnel's opening was in a nearby water well, above the water level. From there, the shaft went down about 15 feet, according to Vigil. The tunnel was about 7 feet high and 18 to 30 inches wide. But it widened to a 7-by-7-foot space, supported by wood and metal.
Yesterday, the Baja California newspaper El Mexicano reported that a man connected with the property said the tunnel was being dug to expand the water well.
De la Torre disagreed.
"That is completely mistaken, unless the water well was going to be connected to one in the United States," he said.
The Mexican Attorney General's Office is in charge of questioning the owners of the property, which included two buildings. Investigators are also trying to find documentation for the water well.
On the U.S. side of the border, DEA agents are expanding the investigation.
Vigil said yesterday that an uninhabited prefabricated house lies about a quarter-mile north of the tunnel site. Neighbors said the house had been placed on the 10-acre property, which is for sale, about four months ago, he said.
Authorities on both sides of the border are conducting joint investigations to try to locate even more tunnels, which are typically used to transport drugs, people or firearms.
The DEA's tunnel study documented complete and incomplete tunnels and other passageways, some of which connect to drainage systems or water pipes.
Four of the 21 tunnels had cart and rail systems. Nine were equipped with lights and ventilation systems.
Five were supported by wood framing and two, including an incomplete tunnel found in Otay Mesa in 1993, had some concrete construction.
Eleven of the Arizona tunnels were connected to an extensive drainage system in the Nogales area.
Twenty of the 21 tunnels were near ports of entry.
"We feel the reason for that is that it's easy access to highways and it facilitates quick transportation," Vigil said.
The most recent tunnel - until this month's find - was discovered by Border Patrol agents in April near the San Ysidro port of entry.
It had ventilation and electrical systems and was estimated to have cost $1 million. It started in a house on the Mexican side and ended at a storm drain in a parking lot, next to the border fence.
Vigil said sources have linked that tunnel to Ismael Zambada Garcia, a longtime rival of the Arellanos, although a clear-cut connection hasn't been established.
Some national security experts and government officials on both sides of the border worry that terrorists could rent the tunnels – for the right price – to smuggle people or chemical weapons into the United States. Such links between organized crime groups have been documented in other parts of the world.
But others say that's not likely to happen on the U.S.-Mexico border.
A source who said he associates with drug traffickers in Tijuana said many traffickers are angry at the terrorists, blaming them for the tightened border restrictions that have cut into drug-smuggling profits.
The source said some of his associates lost as much as $50,000 a week in the first two or three months after the terrorist attacks and have had to find new ways to smuggle their products into the United States.