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Border Patrol ‘tunnel rats’ plug underground narco tunnels

March 16, 2017  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Border Patrol ‘tunnel rats’ plug underground narco tunnels (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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Agents who enter clandestine corridors that have proliferated on the U.S.-Mexico border over the past two decades to smuggle drugs have garnered the name “tunnel rats.”

The Associated Press followed the Border Tunnel Entry Team inside of an unfinished tunnel that was found in 2009 in San Diego — which is 70 feet deep, 3 feet wide, 2,700 feet long and is built with lighting, a rail system, and ventilation.

According to the AP, officials found 224 border tunnels starting in Mexico from 1990 to 2016, including 185 that entered the U.S. Many of these passages are shallow holes, but some are intricately built with hydraulic lifts, water pumps, and rail vehicles.

The vast majority of these tunnels are in Arizona, where traffickers connect to underground drainage canals in Nogales, and in California, where construction noise gets less attention in the midst warehouses of an industrial area of San Diego, across from closely packed residences and businesses in Tijuana.

In this March 6, 2017 photo, a member of the Border Patrol’s Border Tunnel Entry Team walks in a tunnel spanning the border between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, in San Diego. AP Photo Gregory Bull

 

Tunnels are typically used for multi-ton loads of weed because the drug’s bulk and odor are hard to conceal for drivers and pedestrians who enter the U.S. at border crossings, which is the preferred means for smuggling meth and heroin.

In 2015, authorities confiscated cocaine in connection with two tunnels in California, including one that ran underwater from a house in Mexico to the All-American Canal located near Calexico.

The tunnels, which the DEA attributes to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, cost between $1 million and $2 million to construct and takes months to finish, according to Chris Davis, the supervisory special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations. That investment quickly pays off with proceeds from trafficking as long as crews escape detection.

Tunnels are recovered through tips from informants, neighbors, and others. However, Lance Lenoir, who heads the Border Patrol’s “tunnel rats” team in San Diego, says seismic devices, acoustics, and ground-penetrating radars help assist with human intelligence.

Border Patrol as “tunnel rats” – agents who go in clandestine passages that have proliferated on the U.S.-Mexico border over the last 20 years to smuggle drugs. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Detectives keep tabs on who owns and rents warehouses in San Diego’s Otay Mesa area for dubious transactions. They also pop into businesses to ask them to report signs: construction equipment and dirt, jackhammer sounds, people coming and going at strange hours.

“They’ll tunnel anywhere they want. It’s wherever they can get a building,” Lenoir stated. “Location, location, location.”

Once the tunnels are discovered, “tunnel rats” go in, which is a dangerous assignment because there’s always a possibility that the walls can collapse. They map and mark the passages and work on packing them with concrete to prevent them from use.

Mexican officials claim that they don’t have the cash to fill the tunnels, a vulnerability that is gaining more public criticism. Lenoir says traffickers have used existing tunnels at least seven times in recent years.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it used $8.7 million to fill tunnels between 2007 and 2015. Last week, they granted a $153,000 contract to fill concrete into the U.S. part of a completed tunnel lined with cobblestone. The tunnel was found in October and ended in a San Diego warehouse.

President Trump has made the construction of a “great wall” on the U.S. border with Mexico a signature premise of his presidency, causing critics to argue that people will go over, under, and around it to enter the U.S.

During an August speech, Trump said in Phoenix that he would “find and dislocate tunnels and keep out cartels.” His executive order on security doesn’t specifically address tunnels but indicates that that drug organizations operate sophisticated drug and human trafficking networks on both sides of the border.

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