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THE NATION

Tunnel between U.S., Mexico homes sealed

June 30, 2007|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Federal authorities said Friday that they had discovered and sealed a long, crudely built tunnel for drug trafficking that connected two small homes in a hillside neighborhood on the Arizona-Mexico border.

The tunnel appeared on the verge of being used to transport drugs when U.S. and Mexican agents conducted simultaneous raids late Thursday on the homes in Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico, authorities said.

Five men were arrested at the house in Mexico. The home in Arizona, which appeared to be vacant, contained a jackhammer, a pick and kneepads, according to Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which conducted a joint investigation with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Though the houses were just 100 yards apart, the tunnel twisted for more than 200 yards. More-sophisticated drug tunnels discovered in recent years have featured ventilation and rail and cart systems, but this one was narrow and poorly constructed, authorities said.

At 3 feet by 3 feet, it was barely wide enough to crawl through. Two Mexican police officers crawled 20 minutes through it and emerged winded, said David Petersmarck, an ICE supervisory special agent in Nogales, Ariz. "They weren't doing well. They were pale," he said. "It was hard to get through."

Federal agents, acting on a tip, had kept the home in Nogales, Ariz., under surveillance since April. They don't believe the tunnel was ever operational.

In recent years, more than 50 tunnels have been discovered along the U.S.-Mexico border as drug traffickers have gone underground to avoid beefed-up enforcement efforts aboveground.

Tunnels are regularly discovered in Nogales, about 70 miles south of Tucson. Traffickers often branch off from a large water drainage network to tunnel into houses or vacant lots.

U.S. authorities sealed the entrance to the latest tunnel and said they plan to fill the entire passage. Traffickers have reused unfilled tunnels in Nogales and San Diego to build new passages.

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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