Tunnel Network Sends Border Patrol Underground
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."
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