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Tunnels found near U.S. border

| Monday, May 13, 2002

TECATE, Mexico — It was a typical bedroom with long curtains and a plush, floral rug — except that the fireplace wasn't just for keeping things cozy.

When police removed the metal grill still holding charred logs, they found a secret tunnel to the United States.

Over the past decade, officials have discovered at least 16 tunnels along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, all thought to be used for smuggling drugs. Six have been found since December, and federal law enforcement officials on both sides of the border believe five of them started operating after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This suggests to them that heightened U.S. border security is driving more smugglers to the underground route.

"We firmly believe there is a direct relation to our fortification of the border," said Vincent Iglio, associate special agent in charge of the U.S. Customs Service in Tucson, Ariz.

The passage behind the fireplace was discovered in February in an isolated ranch house 20 miles east of the Mexican border town of Tecate. It had rails on which smugglers would send cocaine on electric carts on a 300-yard journey into the back of a staircase of a house in Tierra del Sol, Calif.

While it is believed to have gone undetected for 10 years, the other recently discovered tunnels seem newer and more hastily dug.

One was still under construction when U.S. Border Patrol agents stumbled upon it last month. Another, found in March, was built to bypass the entrance of another tunnel that had already been discovered and sealed with concrete.

The sealed tunnel, found in December, ran 85 feet from a home in Nogales, Ariz., to a concrete drainage canal in Mexico, where smugglers covered the opening with a steel utility plate and resealed it with cement each time they used it.

U.S. Customs authorities believe it had been operating for only three months, in which time smugglers moved some $20 million worth of cocaine and marijuana.

Another tunnel found last month, believed to have been put into operation since Sept. 11, ended in a parking lot near the U.S. Customs office in Nogales.

Authorities on both sides of the border are looking for more, but it's a tough challenge.

"We can't go around doing seismic graphs, and we can't check without a search warrant," said Donald Thornhill Jr., a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in San Diego.

The most elaborate tunnel was found 12 years ago. It ran 100 yards from a home in Agua Prieta, Mexico, to a warehouse in Douglas, Ariz. It had a rail car and the initial stages of a track, and was accessed by using hydraulic lifts that raised the entire floor of the home's game room.

Seven of the tunnels connected to storm drains linking the two cities named Nogales on either side of the Arizona border.

Years ago, street children lived in the drains and charged smugglers for the right to pass. Migrants also traipsed through the darkness until several drowned in a rush of floodwaters, and the U.S. Border Patrol started monitoring the tunnels' openings on the U.S. side.

Thornhill doesn't believe terrorists might use the tunnels. "Drug traffickers have them pretty well locked up," he said. "It's such a bonanza for them. I don't think terrorists would be welcome."

The DEA suspects that the Arellano Felix gang, based in Tijuana, 65 miles west of Tecate, moved as much as 10 tons of drugs into the United States — part of it through the fireplace tunnel.

Surrounded by miles of desert, abutting a lonely stretch of border, the house seemed a perfect location.

Using hydraulic tools, builders burrowed north, passing 20 feet under the metal border wall. They removed enough dirt to fill as many as 70 dump trucks, bagging it and quietly disposing of it, according to the DEA.

They installed lights and strung plastic piping along the wall for ventilation. The dirt walls and roof were shored up with wooden beams.

Standing guard at its opening, a Mexican federal police officer peered in with a reporter.

"What's it like over there?" he asked. "I heard the United States is really nice. I would like to go someday, but I heard it's really hard to get in."

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