Fri December 17, 2010

Businesses Enlisted To Ferret Out Drug Tunnels

Federal authorities are trying a new tactic to find underground drug smuggling tunnels near the Mexico border in San Diego, after finding two tunnels last month and seizing 50 tons of marijuana.

Authorities are now going door to door, asking business owners to help them look for signs of underground tunnel construction and existing tunnels.

Sophisticated Passageways

About four blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border, in San Diego's Otay Mesa, there are about 600 generic-looking warehouses. Federal authorities plan to visit them all.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who asked not to be named for security reasons is visiting warehouse owners with members of the San Diego Tunnel Task Force. "Otay Mesa is a real hotbed area for subterrain [drug] tunnels," says the agent.

The two tunnels unearthed by authorities last month were found a few blocks from where the agent is going door to door. The tunnels were sophisticated, with electricity and ventilation. And they weren't the first passageways found in the area.

In 2006, authorities discovered the longest tunnel ever, a mile-and-a-half-long tunnel also found inside a nearby warehouse.

ICE is now asking people who work in these warehouses to be on the lookout for things like "subterranean noises or jackhammering without a visible road crew," says the agent.

'We Don't Know And Hear Nothing'

As agents make their rounds, they ask to look around the warehouses.

Inside of one, there are hundreds of boxes bound for Carl's Jr. restaurants in Mexico.

Gabriel Andrade, who manages the operation, points to boxes of toys for kids' meals and boxes of cheese. He says he never suspected a thing when he would drive by one of the buildings where authorities found a tunnel last month.

"I think it is very hard to know," says Andrade. "[There] is a lot of traffic of trucks and we don't know and hear nothing."

Andrade says it's also difficult to see anything. He says, for example, that the warehouse next to his has the doors closed all day.

The agents decide to visit that warehouse next. Inside, workers are using a forklift to unload boxes of chicken taquitos to be sent to U.S. grocers.

Margarito Calleja is the manager. He says they keep the doors down to keep the sun off the food. "Really, we don't communicate with people at other warehouses," says Calleja. "You arrive. You go inside. You do your work. You leave at 6 in the afternoon. Adios. Bye-bye."

There's constant commotion in this area, which is just a few blocks from the commercial border crossing. And Joe Garcia with ICE says that's part of why tunnelers like the area.

"You have shipping and distribution going on almost around the clock now. There's a lot of truck traffic. It is a perfect cover for them," Garcia says.

Inside A Drug Smuggling Tunnel

On Election Day, a tunnel was found in an empty Otay Mesa warehouse. It was about 600 yards long and began inside an empty warehouse in Tijuana. U.S. and Mexican authorities seized more than 30 tons of pot in connection with this tunnel, which is a record seizure for the U.S.

A second tunnel surfaced on Thanksgiving Day in the corner of another empty Otay Mesa warehouse. The humid-smelling passageway to Mexico is about 2,200 feet long.

The tunnel began in the kitchen floor of a home in Tijuana. It plunges 90 feet, and smugglers laid tracks at the bottom to ferry the drugs on a cart. Agents say they believe it took 220 days to dig.

Garcia says it's impossible to know how many tunnels are under the border.

"I'd be naive to say, 'No, we got them all. It's done. We're over,' " Garcia says.

But Garcia says it would also be naive not to enlist Otay Mesa business owners in the hunt. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.