Note: Worth the read, over the years Banks has done some good
reporting on the border issues.
Helps non-border people put things in perspective.
The Beanbag Question ( 24 MAR 2011 )
High-ranking Border Patrol officials have different ideas about what
happened on the night when Agent Brian Terry was killed
by Leo W. Banks
A game camera caught these two drug smugglers walking through the
mountains near the ghost town of Ruby, at the southern end of the
Peck Canyon Corridor.
Many critical details surrounding the killing of Border Patrol Agent
Brian Terry on Dec. 14 remain unknown, as the active murder
But an important fact has been established: The agents working in
Peck Canyon that night first fired at the bandits with beanbag rounds.
Why direct nonlethal fire at dangerous men armed with rifles? Did the
rules of engagement require the first use of something other than
The episode occurred at Peck Well, 11 miles north of the border on
the Coronado National Forest, northwest of Nogales. According to a
leaked Border Patrol report, Terry's BORTAC team—an elite tactical
unit—was conducting "laying-in operations" when five men approached,
at least two carrying rifles.
After identifying themselves as Border Patrol agents, one of them
fired twice with a beanbag shotgun. This same agent then fired "an
unknown number of rounds from his service-issued sidearm."
Another agent fired at the men with his M-4 rifle. Terry, shot in the
back, "called out that he was hit and couldn't feel his legs," and
soon lost consciousness.
Homeland Security officials remained mostly silent on the beanbag
question until earlier this month, when Alan Bersin, commissioner of
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, spoke at a Tucson press
conference. He said the BORTAC team made the decision on its own,
based on the circumstances, to first use nonlethal force.
"There is no policy and was no standing policy regarding the use of
nonlethal force as a prelude to the use of lethal force," Bersin
said. "... The agents were armed as they needed to be. They were
prepared to use lethal force and did."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said agents were allowed
to use lethal force if "under threat of serious injury or death."
But the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union, isn't
"It makes absolutely no sense that someone trained in tactics would
opt for less than lethal force when facing bandits with rifles," says
T.J. Bonner, who headed the union until his retirement on March 7.
"The intelligence was solid that these guys operated in that area
Bonner says his opinion is based mainly on talks with other
tactically trained agents, adding that he hasn't spoken to any of the
agents present in Peck Canyon that night.
"They've all lawyered up," says Bonner.
However, Ron Colburn, who recently retired as national deputy chief
of Border Patrol, is a tactically trained agent who says Bersin's
comments ring true.
"The team chooses their method for challenging those dark silhouettes
in the night," says Colburn, who also hasn't spoken to members of
Terry's team since the firefight. "It's entirely up to them."
Colburn is one of the founders of the 27-year-old BORTAC unit and one
of its first agents. He also served as a BORTAC team leader on
numerous tactical missions, including some in the rugged Peck Canyon
A key point, says Colburn, is that no law-enforcement agency in
America shoots first and asks questions later.
"People say, 'Gee, Border Patrol used beanbags? Why didn't they just
shoot these guys?'" says Colburn. "Because a domestic law-enforcement
interdiction is entirely different from what our soldiers in
The goal in a domestic interdiction is to challenge the bad guys and
make an arrest.
Colburn says BORTAC agents typically fire nonlethal devices,
simultaneous to shouting for their targets to drop their weapons.
This could be beanbags or flash bangs, which explode and emit a
disorienting bright light, allowing agents to move in and make arrests.
Colburn says that the challenge phase occasionally doesn't work, and
the bad guys open fire. In this case, terrible luck intervened, and a
bullet found Terry, making him the first BORTAC agent killed in the
line of duty.
"You either try to gain surprise and intimidate your suspects with
less-lethal devises first, or you use no force at all," says Colburn.
"Those are your choices."
He was on a radio show recently during which the claim was made that
Obama was ordering agents into the field with less-than-lethal
munitions against guys carrying AK-47s.
"I understand they feel they have a noble cause they want to
perpetuate," Colburn says about people who make such claims. "But
it's not the truth."
Bonner remains unsatisfied, saying someone at high levels of
government knows what happened that night and will have to answer
questions at some point. Exactly what orders were given?
"People don't come up with ideas like that on their own," says
Bonner. "They have to come from on high, and the administration is
going to have to come clean. They've been less than honest on this
from the get-go."
As for life in the Peck Canyon Corridor since the shooting, David
Lowell of the Atascosa Ranch says illicit traffic has dropped
noticeably, due to a ramped-up law-enforcement presence. "Border
Patrol must've invested $1 million in helicopter flights and ground
patrols since the murder," says Lowell, whose home is less than two
miles from the scene of the firefight.
But the traffic hasn't stopped entirely. Early in March, Lowell saw
drug mules walking through Peck Canyon 200 feet from his house.
Border Patrol vehicles responded, but Lowell doesn't know if anyone
He says Border Patrol agents rarely tell residents anything, and
Lowell believes that's essentially an effort to control the news. It
makes him question whether calling in sightings is wise.
"It puts our neck on the block, to some extent," he says. "If it
isn't a cooperative venture with the Border Patrol, maybe it doesn't
pay to report things. The bad guys might find out and kill our dogs
or burn our house."
Colburn himself ran into a clumsy effort at news control after he was
quoted on CNN in late February. The piece was about the decision by
DHS to change how it measures border security. The government is
scuttling the long-used concept of operational control, and replacing
it by counting apprehensions and seizures of drugs, weapons and
Some suspect the Obama administration sees the operational-control
standard as a barrier to its real goal of comprehensive immigration
reform. CNN used a six-second bite from Colburn's 60-minute interview
to give the impression that he shared that opinion.
Next day, he got a call from what he calls a "high-level" CBP
official wanting "to disabuse him of his opinion." Colburn advised
the caller to go back to leadership and tell them to declare publicly
that the change has nothing to do with comprehensive immigration reform.
"They haven't done that, and their silence speaks a thousand words,"
Spilling Over? ( 31 MAR 2011 )
As federal officials talk tough, local officers express concern about
by Leo W. Banks
Marijuana backpacks wrapped in burlap.
We have a mess on the Arizona-Mexico border, and the people of
Arizona can't make an honest assessment of it without pondering the
concept of spillover.
The word has become a mantra that appears in just about every
pronouncement by the feds, and it gets repeated by a compliant
In a speech in January, Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and
Border Protection, said he's thought a lot about why so many
Americans think the border is out of control.
"The answer has to be," he said, "that the violence in northern
Mexico is real and unprecedented. Because of that violence, the
threat that it will spill over is there. While we haven't seen the
spillover violence, the risk is clearly there."
Last week in El Paso, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
repeated the no-spillover canard. This came on the heels of the
bizarre challenge she issued to the drug cartels in January, saying,
"Don't even think about bringing your violence and tactics across
this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response."
If by "violence and tactics," Napolitano means the shootouts and mass
murders that have become commonplace in Mexico's drug war, fair
enough; violence of that proportion has not spilled over here.
But otherwise, this mantra presents a misleading image—of a federal
phalanx at the border capable of preventing anything bad from
entering this country.
However, the whole reason the Arizona-Mexico border today is fraught
with danger is because of spillover.
"I don't know how people are defining spillover, but it's here now
and ongoing," says Nogales Police Chief Jeff Kirkham. "The fingers of
the cartels reach all the way to the Tucson and the Phoenix
metropolitan areas, and other states."
The conflict in Southern Arizona is a fight to control American land.
We're experiencing constant incursions by armed cartel soldiers. In a
Washington Post story last May, Robert Boatright, deputy chief of
Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said border agents here have "close to
daily" encounters with armed smugglers.
These are hardened men—mostly "prior deports," as Border Patrol calls
them—who know Arizona's borderlands as well as their own faces.
They're motivated enough to use our remotest lands as contraband
highways, and athletic enough to vanish into the canyons when agents
And if challenged on the hugely profitable routes they've fought and
shed blood to "own" for their particular gang, they will shoot. This
became clear with the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, part
of an elite BORTAC team sent into the Peck Canyon Corridor outside of
Nogales on Dec. 14.
"Certainly, most Americans don't know these incursions go on all the
time, but they do," says Kirkham. "It's sad that conditions on our
border have gotten to where we have to send in special interdiction
teams. But these incursions are a significant threat that needs to be
A dramatic example of spillover occurred in Tucson on Aug. 5, 2009,
when 15-year-old Brenda Arenas was murdered in an attempted southside
carjacking. In late January 2011, three Mexican nationals, admitted
drug-smugglers suspected in the slaying, surrendered to American
officials at Nogales.
Why? One of the men told a Tucson TV station that their cartel bosses
told them they were bringing too much attention, and they had a
choice: Turn yourselves in, or we'll kill you. They chose to roll the
dice with American jurisprudence. They were dropped off at the border
crossing and booked into the Santa Cruz County Jail.
"I've never heard of anything like that happening in my 43 years in
law enforcement in Nogales," says Sheriff Tony Estrada.
The spillover is everywhere. In the past year in Pinal County,
Sheriff Paul Babeu reports that violent crimes related to drug-
smuggling include two-officer involved shootings, two cartel hits in
Casa Grande, the killing of two illegals transporting drugs, and the
shooting of a Phoenix kidnap victim unable to meet a ransom demand.
In Maricopa County, authorities recently confirmed that a man found
beheaded in a Chandler apartment in October had been murdered for
stealing from a cartel.
In Cochise County, Sheriff Larry Dever counts the unsolved March 27,
2010, murder of rancher Rob Krentz as spillover, along with break-ins
and home invasions along the Chiricahua Corridor above Douglas.
The toll from these crimes, he says, falls on more than the immediate
victims and involves more than material possessions. They damage the
sense of security and well-being of everyone in the area. And violent
episodes in Mexico compound the impact, because so many Southern
Arizonans have friends, acquaintances or family in Sonora.
"These events are changing lives forever, and I count that as
spillover, too," says Dever.
The 262-mile-wide Tucson Sector is prime spillover country,
especially on federal lands. Last November, the Government
Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, issued a report
stating that Border Patrol agents had arrested 91,000 aliens on
federal land in Arizona in fiscal 2009.
But entries outpaced arrests by three to one. The report stated that
not only is illegal cross-border activity "a significant threat" to
federal lands in Arizona, but it "may be increasing."
Another GAO document, released in mid-February, said Border Patrol
had achieved "varying levels of operational control"—defined as a
high likelihood of crossers being apprehended—over only 44 percent of
the roughly 2,000-mile Southwest border.
The good news is that the border land under control increased by 126
miles per year from 2005 to 2010. About 68 percent of the Tucson
Sector is under control—but that still leaves 32 percent, or about 86
miles, relatively open to illegal activity.
The drug cartels are exploiting the gaps, and they're a different
beast from a few years ago, says Richard Valdemar, a retired Los
Angeles County sheriff's detective now living in Bullhead City.
They've become more militarized, and include elements of former
police and the Mexican army and marines.
"Having a military presence on the border loyal to the cartels is a
whole different thing from a law-enforcement presence," says
Valdemar, former supervisor of Los Angeles County's prison gang unit
who now works training police on gang activities. "We're not talking
about some guy with a Saturday-night special popping a few rounds off
at Border Patrol."
On the weaponry, Kirkham agrees: "It's amazing how much firepower
they have. We're talking AK-47s; we're talking MAC-10s, fully auto."
Valdemar says this militarization—and the apparent end to the taboo
against killing American law enforcement—requires a strong response
to stop incursions at our border. Instead, he says, we erect signs
warning citizens about traveling on heavily trafficked federal lands,
or we close lands to the public because of the danger.
At present, as GAO noted, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is 55
percent closed, and the chief ranger at the Sonoran Desert National
Monument proposed closing that entire 480,000-acre preserve, on the
Interstate 8 smuggling corridor. Border sheriffs call those lands
"To the cartels, that's weakness," Valdemar says. "They already think
we're decadent, soft and unmanly. Then to cede parts of our own
country only encourages them to be more violent. They think we're
As for the future, Valdemar, Dever and Kirkham all say they expect
more spillover violence.
"There are certainly going to be more incidents, because we now have
interdiction efforts meeting it head-on," says Kirkham. "Whether it's
human beings or drugs, they're becoming more desperate to get their
product across, one way or another."
Note: be very interesting to check the Douglas area someday.
Digging for Dollars ( 7 APR 2011 )
The drug cartels have made Nogales the tunnel capital of the
by Leo W. Banks
LEO W. BANKS
Border Patrol agent Tom Pittman and two National Geographic crewmen
prepare to enter a parking-lot tunnel in downtown Nogales.
It's a beautiful morning in downtown Nogales. Border Patrol agent
Kevin Hecht is preparing to lead a National Geographic film crew into
the blackness of a cross-border drug tunnel, so narrow that he has to
remove his gun belt to navigate it.
But first, he wants to make sure no traffic passes on the road above
while he is inside.
"A catering truck went over my head the other day, and the vibration
was unbelievable," says Hecht. "Every little bump in the road is
magnified when you're down below."
After bike-patrol agents halt traffic, Hecht, the cameraman and
Hecht's partner, Tom Pittman, disappear into the tiny hole.
"If you hear me screaming, don't worry," jokes Pittman on the way in.
"It's just the cockroaches. Man, I hate those things."
The tunnel was discovered late last year after a Nogales police
officer saw a vehicle parked over a hole in a parking lot near the
border. The driver of the suspicious vehicle was able to disappear
into traffic before the patrol car could respond.
The police notified Border Patrol, and Hecht and Pittman, two of the
agency's so-called tunnel rats, are now working to shut down the
It was good police work on both ends. But the more important story is
about economics, not law enforcement: Border tunnels can mean huge
Last Nov. 2, on the California-Mexico border, federal officials
busted an 1,800-foot super-tunnel beneath Otay Mesa. It surfaced in a
warehouse near San Diego, where investigators found 16 tons of dope.
They took down another 10 tons in a trailer that had just pulled onto
If the tunnel hadn't been found, the smugglers would have shipped 25
tons—in one day.
"If it took $1 million to $3 million to build that tunnel, they were
getting their investment back in a week, easily," says Tim Durst,
assistant special agent in charge of homeland-security investigations
for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. "They can make
huge profits in a short time in a sophisticated tunnel like that."
Three weeks later, on Thanksgiving, authorities found a second tunnel
containing 20 tons of marijuana. This one began in Tijuana, plunged
90 feet underground and stretched almost a half-mile under the
border. It had lighting, ventilation and a rail-car system for moving
Speed is key for the cartels, says ICE's Kevin Kelly, Durst's
counterpart in Nogales.
"They want to move their narcotics as quickly as possible," he says.
"Nobody likes to keep a load waiting and risk getting hit by law
enforcement, either here or on the south side."
With the 161-foot Nogales parking-lot tunnel, no one knows the
quantity of drugs that passed through it, in what the Border Patrol
estimates was fewer than 72 hours of operation. But even such no-
frills passageways can accommodate good-sized loads.
The same day that Hecht and Pittman, a supervisory Border Patrol
agent, are working the parking-lot tunnel, a crew prepares to close
down another rudimentary tunnel on the eastern edge of downtown.
In this case, the smugglers—in their final crawl-through before
getting arrested—had pushed 665 pounds of dope, with a street value
of $532,000, through what basically was a gopher hole.
Did the closing of these tunnels seriously impact the cartels that
ran them? Don't count on it. The dope was likely written off as an
What about the smugglers taken off the assembly line? A minor labor
issue. Mexico is brimming with people willing to risk their freedom
and their lives pulling duty in airless, stifling-hot, roach-filled
holes, for maybe $300 a run.
The tunnels being filled with cement? A mere transportation glitch,
Mexico also has a limitless pool of laborers, many of them unemployed
mining engineers, willing to go right back to work digging the next
one—which, we can say with certainty nearing 100 percent, is
happening in Nogales right now.
Drug tunnels are where greed and criminal ingenuity meet relentless
"Tunneling on the border has taken off in the last five years," says
Durst, head of a multi-agency, border-wide tunnel task force. "The
San Diego-Tijuana area comes in second for tunnel discoveries, with
Nogales at No. 1. Nogales is the hotspot."
It has earned the dubious title of tunnel capital of the Southwest.
Think of Nogales, Ariz., as one bustling city above another.
Subterranean Nogales exists within the elaborate maze of storm drains
built following severe monsoon floods in 1930 and 1931.
They're essential to the town's survival. They keep Nogales from
disappearing in the rain water that roars off the higher ground of
Nogales, Sonora, and surges north through the pass that cradles both
But the drains are also a kind of office park for smugglers. With
illicit tunnels tapping into hundreds of existing drains, the total
network is extensive, giving rise to jokes that the town might
someday fall into a giant sinkhole.
The wisecracks aren't far off. Last August, a cross-border tunnel
weakened the ground at the DeConcini Port of Entry, causing a
passenger bus to collapse the street beneath it.
Hugh Holub, a former Nogales city attorney now semi-retired in Tubac,
once joked that Nogales should offer drug-tunnel tours as part of the
Within days of Holub's joke, the Discovery Channel was on the phone
with the Chamber of Commerce wanting to schedule a tour.
"The chamber was not amused," says Holub. "It's like we have giant
termites digging around underneath town."
The "termites" have been busy over the last four years. Of the 77
tunnels found in Nogales since 1995, 55 of those have been discovered
since 2007. The busiest year was 2009, when 20 were discovered,
according to Border Patrol figures.
Eleven have been discovered in the past two years.
ICE and Border Patrol officers argue that more technology, more
agents and better fencing have forced the smugglers below ground.
"We've gotten to where the smugglers react to us, rather than us
reacting to them," says Border Patrol spokesman David Jimarez.
"Tunneling is a sign of their growing desperation."
Anthony Coulson, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration
in Southern Arizona, says there is some truth to the claim that
better enforcement at the ports of entry has pushed the cartels
underground. After all, tunnels have significant negatives—the time
they take to build, the high cost and their relatively short life span.
But claims of cartel desperation are overblown.
A report released in March 2010 by the National Drug Intelligence
Center, part of the Department of Justice, states that the
availability of heroin, meth and marijuana in the U.S. is "widespread
and increasing," due mainly to the ability of the Mexican cartels to
get their product across the line.
Only the supply of cocaine has decreased.
"The amount of drugs we seize in the four border states keeps
increasing," says Coulson. "Some say that's a sign of success. I say
it's a sign of failure."
In the Tucson Sector in 2009, for example, Border Patrol seized 1.2
million pounds of drugs, the largest haul ever. In 2010, the number
dropped to slightly more than 1 million pounds.
Homeland Security officials like to tout such seizure numbers,
because they are the only statistic they have to show effectiveness.
But the numbers are meaningless, says Coulson, unless we also know
the "total universe" of drugs being produced, and that is pure
Another important figure: The percentage of the drugs coming across
the border that law enforcement is able to seize. Coulson says it is
less than 50 percent, adding that the cartels plan to lose a set a
percentage—say, 20 to 30 percent—to interdiction. They essentially
hand over this amount to authorities, tying up the time and resources
law enforcement has to commit.
Coulson says the cartels then bump up production and blanket the
"uncontrolled border" with dope to compensate for their losses.
TV stations and newspapers jump into the game, at law enforcement's
invitation, to photograph stacks of seized dope and write stories
telling us how the bust came about.
The result is falsely perceived as a win-win: The media get to feed
the beast with an easy story, leaving the impression they're covering
the drug war; law enforcement gets to look good for the public,
leaving the impression enforcement is working.
But if that were true, the supply of drugs would be dropping, with
the street price going up.
Is that happening?
"Prices are as low as they've ever been, which is an indicator that
we have a problem," says Coulson.
He is not arguing against enforcement, but calls it a finger in the
"You don't want law enforcement taking its fingers out of the dike,
because there would be a disaster," he says. "But it doesn't stop the
The cartels will continue to assault the Nogales border with every
means at their disposal, from walking the desert and hiding drugs in
produce trucks, to pushing them through tunnels.
As the NDIC report notes, the recent increase in tunnels suggests the
cartels consider them "useful investments to smuggle drugs into the
"There's profit in it, or they wouldn't do it," says Kelly.
In downtown Nogales, a common method is to burrow beneath
International Street, which parallels the border fence, punch a small
exit hole in the pavement, and park a car above it.
"Smugglers want to get quickly up to a roadway in a place like
downtown, where there's lots of activity," says Nogales Police Chief
Jeff Kirkham. "They try to blend quickly into the traffic flow and
In December, Nogales ICE agents busted a downtown tunnel that
operated this way. The drugs, packaged in bundles cylindrically
shaped to fit neatly through the tunnel, were shoved up through a
hole in International Street into a van with a trap door in the bottom.
The parking-lot tunnel, 150 yards west of the DeConcini port, also
relied on vehicle trap doors. The exit hole was a circular piece of
cement raised and lowered into place by a manually operated jack
Apart from the jack, a crude vent pipe and two-by-four shoring, the
tunnel wasn't particularly impressive. It was 4 feet deep and
probably took only two months to build. The workers stuffed the dirt
they removed into sugar sacks that were dragged out with ropes.
But they got lost along the way, as evidenced by a failed punch-up a
short distance from the final exit hole.
"They zigzagged around down there, trying to find a way to come up,"
says Hecht, assistant acting patrol agent in charge in Nogales. "I've
seen much better craftsmanship. They did enough to get by, figuring
it wouldn't be in use long."
The easiest way to the surface is often through an existing sewer grate.
As part of downtown patrols, Border Patrol's bicycle agents search
for grates with cracks in the concrete around them, or other signs
that the welds holding them down have been broken.
Flavio Gonzales, the director of the Nogales Department of Public
Works, didn't return calls to discuss the tunnels in his town. But
Holub, who also served as interim director of public works in 2003
and 2004, believes most of the tunnels discovered in Nogales are not
found by law enforcement. Rather, they're found by city public-works
crews that stumble upon them while digging water and sewer lines, or
doing road repairs.
He says the numbers of tunnel discoveries is an unreliable measure of
how many tunnels actually exist.
"I'm absolutely certain there's an extensive network of tunnels under
Nogales that we don't know about," says Holub.
The Grand Avenue and Morley Avenue drainages are two key pieces of
real estate in the fight for subterranean Nogales. These are covered,
concrete drainages—big enough to accommodate a Chevy Tahoe—that start
in Nogales, Sonora, and run parallel to each other underneath the
border, separated by six city blocks.
The drainages find daylight about a mile north of the border,
eventually forming a Y and emptying into the Nogales Wash.
Holub says the smugglers try to use the drainages as passageways back
and forth from Mexico, eliminating the need to dig underneath the
A smuggler might rent a home in Nogales, Ariz., and burrow beneath a
room into one of the city's storm drains, all of which feed into the
Grand or Morley drainages.
Law enforcement has struggled for years to secure these passageways,
with limited success. At one point in the 1990s, gates were installed
inside. But as soon as they went up, the smugglers got busy knocking
The fight is constant to stop illicit traffic in the drainages—
whether it's people trying to enter the country illegally, bandits
waiting to rob them, or drug smugglers moving loads through.
On the Mexican side, Hecht says the Grand Avenue tunnel has
cubbyholes where smugglers stash cement to conceal tunnel openings,
tools, generators and even a wheel barrow dropped down through a
Border Patrol agents on the American side check both drainages daily,
never sure what they might encounter in that strange, underground world.
Pittman once ran into a teenager with an AK-47 guarding a drug load
inside one of the feeder pipes.
When Holub headed public works, repair crews were only allowed to
enter Morley and Grand after a heavily armed SWAT officer cleared
them first. He says city officials actually investigated buying some
kind of military-surplus Humvee, with a bullet-proof lift-up plate,
to protect workers entering the drainages.
Shutting down the traffic in these two tunnels would require a
constant law-enforcement presence. With raw sewage and a mix of toxic
chemicals in the surface water flow, Holub says, it would be a nasty
deployment requiring air packs to breathe and hazmat gear.
"We used to joke that we should put up signs on the Mexican side
saying, 'You will be sterile if you go into this tunnel,'" he says.
"We didn't do it, because we knew it wouldn't stop them. Those
tunnels are dangerous places, major security risks beneath Nogales."
Durst says all border tunnels pose a "significant and viable" threat
to the U.S. A Fox News report in February suggested an increasingly
close connection between the Middle Eastern terror group Hezbollah
and the Mexican drug cartels.
The report noted a similarity between the increasingly sophisticated
tunnels being built along our Southwest border and the tunnels used
to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip.
Durst, with other tunnel-task-force members, has traveled to Gaza to
study tunnels there. While he says he has no information that tunnels
have been used to smuggle terrorists or WMDs into the United States,
he fears a drug cartel might get greedy enough to try.
"It hasn't happened so far, because there's so much profit in moving
drugs," says Durst. "But it's a threat we work hard to stop and
desperately hope doesn't happen. We worry about it all the time."
When Hecht, Pittman and the National Geographic cameraman emerge from
the parking lot tunnel, they're filthy, breathing heavily and
Even with a ventilation machine pumping in cool air, the tunnel is a
lousy place to spend a shift. Claustrophobia?
As a four-year tunnel rat veteran with confined-space training, Hecht
says he barely thinks about it anymore.
"I just close my eyes, and me and Tom will talk the whole time about
different stuff," he says. "We try not to focus too much on where we
With filming work done, and the tunnel on the way to being shut down,
the tunnel rats move to the east end of downtown. A construction crew
is there working to fill with concrete the tunnel that agents found
after seizing that 665-pound load.
The tunnel ran under the border fence at the intersection of
International Street and Nelson Avenue, a location that provides a
vivid picture of the challenges law enforcement faces in policing
The two towns are set hard against one another. The land on the
Sonoran side rises up from the line on a steep hillside dotted with
houses, the nearest a little more than 100 feet from buildings on the
Agents know that some of those houses are cartel-controlled—either
lookouts or stash houses—and have been used for tunnels in the past.
But the Nelson-International tunnel actually began in the thick brush
of a vacant lot.
The diggers burrowed underneath the border fence and the
intersection, the tunnel so shallow that its roof and the busy street
above were separated by a mere 2 1/2 inches.
After burrowing for 43 feet, the diggers broke into one of the city's
drainage pipes. They crawled inside this 15-inch-wide space up to the
next intersection, then entered an 18-inch pipe. They remained inside
these two pipes for a total of 750 feet before veering left into the
In the 15-inch pipe especially, the smugglers moved in half-inch
thrusts achieved only after exhaling provided the shoulder room, all
the while pushing or dragging suitcase-sized dope bundles ahead of them.
Pittman knows what it was like inside the 15-inch pipe. He explored
"I wasn't able to crawl," he says. "I had to extend my arms out in
front of me, push forward with my toes and kind of contort myself. It
With no room to turn around, he had to crawl out backwards, and there
was no Plan B, such as a cable to yank him out in the event of a cave-
It wouldn't work anyway. The curve of the pipe would pin him against
"It's like a lobster trap in there," says Pittman. "Easy to get in,
hard to get out."
He did this work with an audience: 10 minutes after Border Patrol
discovered the International-Nelson tunnel, Pittman says, smugglers
on the other side knew about it.
He could see two men peering through the fence at him as he cork-
screwed down into the 15-inch drainage pipe. As soon as he was
inside, they turned on water to flood him out, forcing him to squirm
along in 2 inches of mud and muck.
When he emerged from the hole, Pittman saw the same men talking on
cell phones, likely planning their next effort.
"They watch what we do 24 hours a day, and know everything we know
within minutes," says Pittman. "As soon as we bust one tunnel, they
start work on another. It's crazy."
Actually, it's business.
Kelly says the gangsters who make use of tunnels are "very
sophisticated people" who run their cartels like Fortune 500
companies, with a CEO at the top, layers of responsibility on down,
and a special lieutenant in charge of tunnels.
"If they're successful getting their narcotics into the U.S., they're
going to make a lot of money," he says. "Mexico has the supply, and
the demand is here. It's sheer economics."