WATCH: Smuggling from Mexico through tunnels

(Original air date: December 8, 2019)

We’ve taken a lot of trips to our southern border to investigate at illegal immigration issues. Today, we go underground to get a close up look at what was once a major smuggling route in Nogales, Arizona that didn’t require the cartels to climb a wall or sneak through the mountains. Border Patrol Official Kevin Hecht is a tunnelling expert and our guide.

Kevin Hecht: Nogales, Sonora sits higher than us here, so all the water and rain events in Mexico flow into the United States.

Sharyl: So this is like a storm water drain-

Hecht: Storm water, and then there’s also some sewage lines that treat some sewage that comes in from Mexico. They also use that for smuggling too, so there’s different avenues that they might use for smuggling.

Hecht: So normally during a major rain event, you shouldn’t open this door. You can’t open this door, because the channel, when I open it you’ll see it’s rather large. But the water flows wall to wall, floor to ceiling in here. So it’s a significant flow of water. So this is actual rain drainage from street runoff. It does have a chlorine smell to it, because there is some E coli that comes in from Mexico. It’s treated with chlorine to keep that down. But during rain season, it can be a little bit high. I’m going to step down, we can step down too, just don’t go in the water.

Sharyl: Where is Mexico?

Hecht: Right here.There’s a yellow line across the ceiling on the angle, and that’s Mexico. Years ago, this drainage used to be very active for smuggling. We had a landing mat gate, which was a solid steel gate, and the rains would rip it out. So instead of putting it back in every day, we’d wait till rain season was over. What that allowed was for smugglers to come in and use the drainage channels. And they would smuggle drugs, people, a lot of violence, some aggressive violence, stabbings.

Sharyl: Can you give us an overview of the tunnel situation, how bad it is and how often they’re used?

Hecht: Sure, so historically speaking, there’s just over 212 tunnels in the United States found. In this town alone there’s been 113.

Sharyl: You know, some people will have never visited the border or a border town. What about tunnels, should they know?

Hecht: So tunnels main purpose is smuggling drugs. They’re secretive, and they don’t want people to know about them. Tunnels are not used for smuggling people. This tunnel exists, so this is existing manmade infrastructure. There’s no secret about this. It’s on every city planning map. It’s on every zoning map in every city that has infrastructure, so they’ll use people in these, not a problem.

Sharyl: Was that a new thing that people recognized? They could use this as a smuggling tunnel?

Hecht: This has been used for a very, very long time. This channel has been built in the 30s, 40s. It started as the earth, dirt tunnel, natural flow, and then as urbanization happened, it concreted it in and sealed it. With that happening, that gave an underground means of smuggling. So over time, yes they developed ways. But we’ve changed our gates to this bollard style, and we actually have more active patrols. They adapted to that. So in the early 90s, mid-90s, this started picking up a little bit more underground. So then we had to counter that. So what we did originally, is we put an agent at the exit, which is a mile north of here. So you can go a mile underground and into the U.S., pretty much without being detected at that time, so what they did to counter that, is they started jacking up sidewalks and manholes throughout the town and coming out of the streets. Then we had to counter that and started welding those down. So then we obviously pushed forward towards the border, came up with a design that would prevent the gates from getting ripped out, attacked at the border. That solved our problem the whole mile north of the border.

Border agents go through extensive training to go in to illicit drug tunnels.

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