'Tunnel Rats' Patrol Border Storm Drains

Smugglers 'Constantly' Burrow Between Mexico and Arizona

By William BoothWashington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

NOGALES, Ariz. -- They call themselves the Tunnel Rats. Trained in close-quarter combat, psychologically certified to work in confined spaces and armed to the teeth, these four-member teams of Border Patrol agents monitor an elaborate underground warren of dark and dangerous storm drains that crisscross these twin downtowns along the border.
Lately, the Tunnel Rats have been busy.

In the past nine months, they have discovered 16 new tunnels dug by smugglers in Nogales to move drugs, migrants, cash and weapons between Mexico and the United States. The number of tunnels sets a new record. A Border Patrol official calls the burst of subterranean activity "startling."

"It's Swiss cheese under there," said Brooke Howells, a supervisory Border Patrol agent and a tunnel teams leader. "They're constantly burrowing. If you are a smuggler, a working tunnel can be a very lucrative enterprise."
The digging has become so extensive beneath Nogales that the southbound traffic lane through the international port of entry collapsed.
"Before that, the parking lot at the customs office caved in," Howells said. "They collapse all the time."

The tunnelers pop up all over town. Border Patrol agents report that it is not uncommon to see a manhole cover suddenly lift during rush hour and men run out of the hole.

The passageways come up through rental house floors, in abandoned stores and in back yards. Agents have found exits near a taco stand, a Chinese restaurant and the local Burger King.

A tunnel team leader, supervisory Border Patrol agent Tom Pittman, gave a rare tour beneath the streets. A few feet from the port of entry on the U.S. side of downtown, Pittman lifted a manhole cover, turned his flashlight on and climbed down a ladder. "Hold on a second," he said. "Let me see if anybody's down here first."

After a few minutes, he whistled all-clear. This was the Morley Avenue storm drain, which moves water from Mexico to the United States. The drainage is dank and moist. It smells like bats. "You hear them?" Pittman asked. Nogales is ideal terrain for tunnelers, the agent said. The two Nogaleses, one in Arizona, the other in the Mexican state of Sonora, are built on steep ravines and separated only by a tall fence that runs through the middle of a shared downtown. Beneath both cities lies a network of large storm drains constructed to handle the gully-washing monsoon rains that come in the summertime. Without the storm drains, Nogales would experience disastrous flooding.

The Morley drain is big enough to drive a truck through, and until the Border Patrol recently secured the exit with a grated swing gate, that's what some smugglers did -- they drove through.

Hundreds of smaller drainpipes made of corrugated metal -- as wide around as a man's shoulders -- feed into the main drains. Alongside, the illegal burrowers dig side tunnels. To find the illegal passageways, the Border Patrol agents have to wiggle into the drains. "You never know what you'll find," Pittman said.

One time, he found a teenager with an AK-47 guarding a bale of marijuana. He has encountered bandits armed with knives to rob Mexicans trying to sneak into the United States.

Smuggling underground in Nogales dates to the Prohibition era in the 1920s. Tunneling has also been a well-used technique for years, but Border Patrol officials say activity appears to be increasing.

The latest tunnel, found two weeks ago, was 83 feet long and had ventilation tubes, wooden beams and plywood ceilings. It was just down the block from the port of entry manned by hundreds of U.S. agents.

The Border Patrol discovered the tunnel after a concerned citizen reported hearing suspicious scratching, hammering and digging.

"They're digging another one someplace right now," Pittman said. "I can almost guarantee it."

Staff writer Travis Fox contributed to this report.

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