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$1-Million Drug Tunnel Found at Mexico Border : Narcotics: The passageway ends at a warehouse in Arizona. It was used to bring cocaine into the U.S.

May 19, 1990|DOUGLAS JEHL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The discovery of an elaborate 270-foot tunnel built under the Mexican border by drug traffickers to haul large quantities of cocaine to an Arizona warehouse was revealed Friday by federal officials.

Flabbergasted Customs Service agents described the million-dollar passageway as "something out of a James Bond movie," replete with electric lighting, concrete reinforcement and a hydraulic system that raised a game-room floor in a Mexico hide-out to provide entry to the secret border crossing.

Discovery of the tunnel--dug near an official border crossing in Douglas, Ariz.--confirmed the emergence of a long-rumored new dimension in international drug smuggling. Bush Administration officials said they now suspect that the Southwest border may have been breached by several such underground passages.

"We believe there are other tunnels, and we are working to find them," Customs Commissioner Carol Hallett said. "This shows how brazen they are."

Rumors of a smugglers' tunnel had swirled within the anti-drug community for months. But sources said that a painstaking federal search had turned up nothing until Army geologists, using advanced seismic profiling equipment, detected a suspicious hollow area about 30 feet beneath the Earth's surface near the Douglas border crossing.

The 5-foot-tall passage linked a luxury home in Agua Prieta, Mexico, to a warehouse across the border in Arizona, where tractor-trailers and other rigs apparently were loaded with thousands of pounds of cocaine and dispatched to delivery points elsewhere in the United States.

Federal agents, who had recently begun surveillance of the site, seized more than a ton of cocaine and arrested two men near Phoenix on May 11 after following a truck from the suspect loading dock.

Armed with jackhammers and torches, agents raided the warehouse and discovered the sophisticated tunnel late Thursday night. In a parallel strike, agents of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police raided the Agua Prieta home, owned by Mexican businessman Rafael Francisco Camarena.

The Mexican attorney general's office said two people were arrested in the house. Camarena is not in custody, and officials refused to say whether there was a warrant for his arrest.

He owns the Douglas Building Supply warehouse and a firm called Douglas Redi-Mix Concrete. Authorities said they believed he had used his own expertise to engineer the link between his home and warehouse.

U.S. authorities, who estimated the cost of the tunnel at more than $1.5 million, said evidence seized in the raid indicated that it had served for more than six months as a clandestine highway for northbound cocaine.

"This is the most unique smuggling operation I have ever come across," Customs Service agent Thomas McDermott told reporters Friday at an Arizona news conference.

Video footage of the Mexican site showed a hidden switch inside the luxury home that, when activated, boosted a pool table and the concrete slab below it high into the air to open the way to a narrow shaft below.

Thirty feet beneath was a secret chamber where vast quantities of cocaine had been stored, federal agents said.

The concrete-lined tunnel was shored up to prevent cave-ins and lined with compartments in which, authorities said, up to five tons of cocaine could be stored.

A sump pump kept the passage free of water, and a trolley was used to ferry cocaine along the 273-foot, mat-floored passage, they added.

At the U.S. end, an advanced hoist and pulley system apparently raised drug packages into a warehouse staging area from the tunnel below.

"This is right out of the movies or a thriller," said Judy Turner, a Customs Service spokeswoman in Houston. "This is something we'd never even dreamed of."

The smugglers were probably also using the tunnel to transport profits back to Mexico, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Gerard Murphy said.

The discovery of the tunnel adds an important piece to a drug-smuggling puzzle that has left authorities baffled, as cocaine seizures along the U.S.-Mexico border have failed to keep pace with a suspected massive increase in drug trafficking in the region.

Frustrated federal officials, speculating that only collaboration on the American side might explain the smugglers' success, had begun an extensive investigation of corruption among U.S. border agents.

Although high-ranking officials said Friday that the investigation would continue, they said the tunnel appeared to provide at least a partial explanation for cross-border trafficking that evaded official notice.

"They're not only coming by air and walking across, but now they're tunneling under," said Stanley E. Morris, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Policy.

Hallett, the Customs Service commissioner, said in an interview that the smugglers' decision to tunnel beneath the border "shows how difficult we're making it for them up top."

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