May 11, 2006

Crack US Unit Duels with Mexico Drug Tunnelers

By Tim Gaynor

OTAY MESA, California -- Dug by hand with the help of rogue mining engineers to link warehouses on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border, it was the longest, deepest and boldest drug smuggling tunnel found to date.

But before the Mexican gang had even punched through a concrete floor to emerge opposite a washroom in a distribution depot in Otay Mesa, California, a crack law enforcement team with expertise honed in the hunt for Osama bin Laden was on their trail.

Little known outside police circles, the Tunnel Task Force came to light with the January 24 discovery of the passageway that was used to haul tons of marijuana almost half-a-mile (800 meters) from Mexico.

Based in San Diego, the team pools the resources of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection, and it draws support from a special U.S. military unit.

U.S. authorities have identified tunnels as an emerging threat to homeland security in the wake of the September 11 attacks.. Since then at least 40 have been uncovered linking cities in Arizona and California with Mexico, and one ran under the border from Canada to Washington state.

Most were shallow and easy-to-detect "gopher holes" used by undocumented immigrants to scrabble north. But the most sophisticated were scooped out by cash-rich Mexican cartels burrowing ever deeper and further inside U.S. territory in a bid to reap billions of dollars in drug profits. The one discovered in January was fitted with lights and a ventilation system.

"What they now have to take into their business equation is that every single resource from the federal government is particularly geared to finding things like this, and we're getting better and better at what we do," said Frank Marwood, the special agent in charge of ICE in San Diego.


The Tunnel Task Force was set up two years ago and meets weekly in a federal building close to the border. The search for tunnels is led by intelligence gathered by agents working with contacts on both sides of the border.

First indications that a big tunnel was under construction came as long ago as early 2005. Then in January, the team narrowed the search to an area east of Tijuana International Airport, and called in support from an El Paso, Texas-based military unit.

Originally called Joint Task Force Six, the combined-services unit was founded in 1989 to provide technical and intelligence support to federal police snaring drug traffickers on the Mexico border. It was renamed Joint Task Force North in 2004 and given an additional homeland security role.

Its members are specialists in hunting for tunnels. Some learned their skills in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, where the search for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden initially focused on the Tora Bora caves and tunnel complexes near the Pakistan border.

Given a stretch of ground, in this instance a strip of churned up clay between twin fences marking the Mexico border, the engineers use geo-science technologies including ground radar, magnetometers and seismic detectors to search for "discreet voids" left by man-made tunnels.

"It's getting to a point where we are planning to build our own tunnels to different depths and specifications to perfect the technologies that we are using to hunt for them," JTFN engineer Lt. Col. Steve Baker told Reuters.

While the breakthrough in the Otay Mesa hunt came from human intelligence, Baker predicts progress in the technologies will enable the team to "put the (traffickers) out of business in five years."


But the Tunnel Task Force experts have their work cut out for them. Experts say they are pitting their wits against professional mining engineers brought in to dig industry standard shafts and galleries.

Consultants brought in from the Kentucky coal fields to survey the Otay Mesa tunnel found that it had been chipped out by hand using pickaxes and electrical jackhammers to a depth equivalent to a nine-story building.

Neatly finished with a concrete floor, it made a straight run to its mark, and had been carefully built with a sloping gradient to allow ground water to sink to the lowest point on the Mexican side of the border, from where it was easily pumped out.

"The experts indicate that (it) could not have been completed without the help of someone with an excellent knowledge of mining, either building it or advising those who worked on it." Marwood said.

The Task Force believes that the clandestine route was open for about two months before it was discovered, during which time traffickers used wheelbarrows to haul marijuana and probably cocaine, heroin and amphetamines north.

So far only one man has been arrested and charged in the investigation into the tunnel, which authorities believe was built by either the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug gang or a band linked to Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

The discovery cost the gang millions of dollars. But agents say the cartels are unlikely to stop digging, and may even extend their high-stakes duel with the Tunnel Task Force to other, untried areas of the border in search of profits.

"Could they build a tunnel under the Rio Grande?" Marwood mused. "It really is just an engineering question. If the money is right for them, they can do whatever is possible."