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Tunnel Network Sends Border Patrol Underground

Tom Pittman, a Border Patrol supervisor, exits the massive drainage tunnels that are located directly under the Nogales port-of-entry. Border Patrol agent Mario Escalante looks on.

NOGALES, Arizona -- Tom Pittman lifts a manhole cover open, turns on his flashlight and climbs down a ladder into a dangerous warren of drains and tunnels, a literal underworld where spooky bandits and illegal migrants and drug smugglers move around in the dark. "Hold on a second," Pittman says. "Let me see if anybody's down here first."

They call themselves the Tunnel Rats. Trained in close-quarter combat, certified to work in confined spaces and armed to the teeth, these four-person teams of Border Patrol agents have been busy lately.

In the last nine months, they discovered 16 new tunnels dug by smugglers under Nogales. The number of tunnels sets a new record. "It's swiss cheese under there," said Brooke Howells, a Border Patrol supervisor.

The digging has become so extensive beneath the streets of Nogales that the southbound traffic lane through the international port of entry recently collapsed.

Panoramic Composite: Inside the Tunnels. Click to View

The latest tunnel, found two weeks ago, was 83 feet long, had ventilation tubes, wooden beams and plywood ceilings. It traveled from a house in Mexico to a warehouse in the United States. It was located at the busiest intersection in downtown Nogales, at East International Street and North Nelson Avenue, just down the block from the port of entry manned by hundreds of U.S. agents.

"You never know what you'll find," Pittman said. One time, he stumbled upon a teenager with an AK-47 guarding a bale of marijuana. He has encountered bandits who lurk in the tunnels, armed with knives, to rob migrants who are trying to sneak into the United States.

During the monsoon rains, Mexicans have been trapped and have drowned in the drains and tunnels. Beside the storm water system is the sewage system. Drug smugglers have packaged kilos of cocaine in plastic milk crates, added some buoyancy, and sent them flushing through the raw sewage from Mexico to the United States.

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

By William Booth and Travis Fox  |  June 24, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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I do not feel the mexican goverment is doing its share to put a stop to the problems along the border. Also the truck shipments into the U.S. need to be searched more. The tax on goods to Mexico from the U.S. is a big problem. Why..the drivers and trucks don't meet our standards. No money or help from our tax dollars to Mexico untill they help and clean up the Drug and other problems along the border. NO emphaty for the illegals and the drug persons.

Posted by: ednasmith | June 24, 2009 8:01 AM | Report abuse

A few grenades thrown down these tunnels just might work - or dynamite or whatever it takes to block them. I am tired of the haofway measure being used - we need to start fighting this as a real war with real weapons of war.

Our country has been and is being invaded by illegal aliens and drug cartels. When will we get serious about fighting for our own country?

Posted by: Utahreb | June 25, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

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