A hole in security?
Border area seems even more vulnerable in the aftermath of 9/11

By Anna Cearley

May 7, 2003

TIJUANA -- When U.S. authorities found a cross-border tunnel in a San Ysidro parking lot last month, they were relieved that the only evidence of contraband was a nearby van packed with marijuana.

There were no signs of chemical weapons, or links to terrorists. It was just another drug tunnel, albeit a sophisticated one with electricity, ventilation and a pulley system that might have cost $1 million to build.

The fears triggered by the San Ysidro tunnel reflect the government's growing concern about the border's vulnerability in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The tunnel, which was found April 4, was the fifth secret passageway discovered along the county's border with Mexico in the past 14 months.

Michael Vigil, special agent in charge of the San Diego office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, summed up the concern: Such tunnels "would be a secure way to facilitate the movement of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction."

Because of that possibility, the distinction between the war against drugs and the war against terrorism is converging along the 2,000-mile U.S-Mexico border.

U.S. and Mexican drug-fighting agencies are trying to locate more tunnels, which may number "at least 100, if not several hundreds," according to one U.S. federal official.

Meanwhile, Mexican immigration officials are cooperating by sharing information on people-smuggling rings and by deporting people of Middle Eastern descent who don't have valid documents.

Experts say terrorists and organized crime have joined forces in other, less-stable parts of the world, such as Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

But not everyone is convinced Mexican drug traffickers would risk renting their tunnels to terrorists.

"They are very careful not to draw too much attention to themselves, and like any business, they aren't going to do anything that jeopardizes their bottom line," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project with Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Drug traffickers funnel billions of dollars worth of drugs through the tunnels into the United States, usually in populated areas where they can operate discreetly under the cover of buildings.

Tunnels aren't typically found along the Texas section of the border, where the Rio Grande River is a natural barrier. They're also rare in New Mexico, which has no major border cities.

In Arizona, however, at least a dozen tunnels have been found in the past decade. Roger Maier, who oversees the border from Arizona to East Texas for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said most were connected to a flood control system of drains and sewers in the U.S city of Nogales.

Tough task
Finding tunnels isn't easy, even with modern technology.

Authorities on both sides of the border often rely on tips. Sometimes the information is precise, but usually they're sent to a general area, where they start examining property records and doing background checks on anyone who seems suspicious.

Last year DEA and Customs agents worked together to locate one of the largest and most sophisticated tunnels ever uncovered in San Diego County. It was found 70 miles east of San Diego in February 2002, and was linked to the Arellano Félix cartel, which is considered the region's dominant drug trafficking organization.

But it was technology that pinpointed a tunnel found in Douglas, Ariz., in 1990 after DEA agents got a tip.

Requests for technological help usually go to Joint Task Force Six, a Texas-based Department of Defense unit that provides counter-drug support to law enforcement agencies in the continental United States. The task force forwards the requests to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has ties with private researchers who are developing technology to find tunnels.

Radar, sonar and electromagnetic waves help detect tunnels. The technology can be imprecise, however, because of geological variations, soil types and nearby power lines.

The Mexican Attorney General's Office in Tijuana doesn't have the equivalent of Joint Task Force Six. But it may try to get technological help from the country's state-run petroleum company, PEMEX, says a drug investigator who refused to be identified citing security concerns.

Meanwhile, another Mexican drug-fighting group has started working with U.S. agencies to identify border properties where tunnels might be hidden.

Miguel Angel de la Torre is overseeing the project in Mexico for the Federal Preventive Police, which operates under a Mexican Cabinet official. He said investigators have used helicopters to identify buildings near the border and are checking the backgrounds of the people who own or live in the buildings.

The study "is a laborious process," said de la Torre, and will stretch from Tijuana to Naco, a town along the eastern Arizona border.

An increasing number of tunnels are being found by U.S. Border Patrol agents, whose numbers have doubled since the early 1990s. While their primary function is still apprehending smugglers and illegal immigrants, agents found two of the last five secret border passageways – including the one discovered April 4.

Middle East link
In a new world order where terrorists are seemingly capable of the most horrifying acts, links between terrorists and Mexican smugglers are "certainly not beyond the realm of the possible," said one terrorism expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The expert, Thomas Sanderson, said that though such links are found in unstable regions of the world, they are less likely to develop along the more controlled Mexico-U.S. border.

Mexico's Interior Minister, Santiago Creel, said last month that Mexican security teams investigated about 60 cases of suspicious people or activities during the U.S. military intervention in Iraq. Some of those people were trying to cross into San Diego from Tijuana, which has been a popular crossing point for Middle Easterners for at least 15 years.

Until recently, Mexican authorities usually ignored the Middle Easterners, though some corrupt agents forced them to pay bribes to overlook their false documents.

But the 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted Mexican authorities to question the visitors more closely.

Last year, U.S. authorities started investigating a Tijuana restaurant owner of Lebanese descent after getting a tip that Mexican authorities had questioned him and two Lebanese immigrants at the Tijuana airport.

In March, Salim Boughader Mucharrafille pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court to running a smuggling ring that helped more than 100 immigrants, most of them Lebanese, cross the border.

Other smuggling rings have catered to Chaldeans, a Catholic minority in Iraq, who come to Tijuana to quietly seek asylum in the United States. Three years ago a group of about 130 Chaldeans were temporarily detained at a Tijuana hotel before being allowed to cross the border.

Crossing the border is harder today.

Over the past few months, at least five people of Iraqi descent have been sent to Mexico City for further questioning after being apprehended with false documents at the Tijuana airport and bus station. Some claimed to be Chaldeans, but Mexican authorities weren't taking any chances.

Catching operators
The ongoing investigation of the San Ysidro tunnel shows how difficult it is for U.S. and Mexican authorities to track down tunnel operators, even when the case doesn't involve terrorism.

DEA agents quickly found the Otay Mesa warehouse where they believe drug traffickers stored the marijuana after moving it from the tunnel. Traces of marijuana were detected on the property.

But the investigation faltered when the agents tried to find the people who had rented the building and owned the vans found inside, because the traffickers apparently used stolen identities.

Two Mexican nationals who were arrested near the tunnel – Juan Manuel Solís, 23, and Carlos Ibarra Castellanos, 30 – pleaded not guilty to charges of possession with the intent to distribute the drugs.

The Tijuana newspaper Frontera reported that the tunnel was being used by a drug trafficking group headed by Ismael Zambada García, a long-time rival of the Arellano cartel. But U.S. and Mexican officials haven't confirmed that.

Meanwhile, the Border Patrol is protecting the identities of the agents who discovered the tunnel, concerned for their safety. A spokesman said the agents will be commended in a private ceremony for their vigilance in keeping the border secure.