“Hola!” I said in a semi-boisterous, oh-shit type of voice to the machine gun-toting Mexican federales (Mexican Police) as I emerged from the drug tunnel into Mexico.
I sure wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The H&K MP5-carrying federales stared at me in disbelief, likely asking themselves who this crazy gringo was.
So how did I end up in Mexico surrounded by machine-gun-toting federales?
A Neverending Drug Tunnel
Before we get into my venture into Mexico, let’s take a look at border tunnels.
I reached out to Tim Gaynor, a border tunnel expert, for more details on border tunnels. Tim recently retired from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and spent years on the U.S. border of Mexico. Gaynor worked on a multi-agency tunnel task force charged with tracking down and uncovering illicit tunnels.
Gaynor told me, “There are a couple of types of “tunnels”. The U.S. Border Patrol would consider the illicit use of underground infrastructure, i.e., storm sewers, utility pipes, etc., a tunnel. Those are mainly used to move people. The “Super Tunnels” people hear about are used mainly for smuggling narcotics north and money South. These tunnels are designed and constructed by engineers employed by the cartels. The soil found on the border between San Ysidro (San Diego) is ideal for these tunnels.”
Gaynor knew these super tunnels all too well. Gaynor said,” The Super Tunnels are usually pretty deep, approaching 50 feet or deeper, and can run close to a mile. These tunnels are equipped with electricity, ventilation, and rail systems. They are usually less than six feet high and six feet wide and are very cramped, hot, and dirty.”
So, There I Was Inside A Tunnel
So there I was, in the early 2000s, assigned to a counterdrug group on the border of San Diego and Tijuana. On top of proactively investigating narco-trafficking groups, we were assigned to respond to any tunnel task force requests for help.
We’ve conducted surveillance on potential tunnels many times, with most turning out to be dry holes. Then, one day, we had one.
This tunnel lay a few hundred yards from the San Ysidro Port of Entry, one of the biggest land ports in the world. So I headed that way to see what I could do to help; at the time, we had no idea the length of the tunnel or if it was used for drugs or people.
I pulled up and parked at the port, walking the few hundred yards to where a group of agents gathered. As I approached, an unfamiliar sight lay ahead. Intermingled with the group of U.S. agents was a group of Mexican Federales. While our borders connected, our agents didn’t intermingle like this.
I walked up and talked to the supervisor running the scene. As I scanned the area, I saw a “manhole cover” sized hole in the ground. As I kept an eye on the hole, the supervisor said a Border Patrol vehicle rolled over the tunnel and collapsed it, making the hole.
The supervisor said a recent storm must have weakened the tunnel causing the collapse. A border liaison must have called over to Mexico to ask for assistance from our southern counterparts, hence the group of federales on the U.S. side of the fence.
You never know what to expect when you encounter a tunnel. Is it used to move drugs or people? You won’t know until you take a closer look at it.
Drugs or People?
As I talked to the supervisor, I asked if any of our [U.S.] agents checked out the other side of the tunnel, and he said no. It appeared the tunnel was at least semi-secured enough for the federales to crawl over to our side, so I volunteered to head through.
In hindsight, this probably wasn’t the wisest decision I’ve made in my career. Yet, I went to my trunk, grabbed my camera, and secured my Glock pistols in my safe. Though we were cordial with the federales, I didn’t want to get caught on the other side of the fence with firearms.
That day, I wore only jeans and a pullover shirt, no tactical or specialized gear. I took a non-expert look at the tunnel entrance, lowered to the ground, and poked my head into the hole. I shined a light up the tunnel to complete darkness. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
I wouldn’t be entering alone. A federale would take the lead, with me trailing behind. The tunnel appeared to stretch about thirty or so yards under the fence with an entrance a bit south past the fence line.
Inside The Drug Tunnel We Go!
I lowered myself into the tunnel, my Streamlight flashlight shining ahead into the claustrophobic tunnel. The tunnel appeared to be dug by small tools and likely by hand. I bet if I looked at the dirt walls closely, I would see tool marks from a shovel or pick.
I inched forward, feeling the walls seemingly closing in on me. The federale moved even further ahead as I crawled faster to catch up. The federale had already ventured through a few times and knew how to transverse it quickly.
As we moved forward, I finally saw a glimpse of light shining ahead. The federale I followed entered into the path of the light and stood straight up.
Finally, I thought, as I reached the end of the drug tunnel, I could get out of this claustrophobic dirt tube.
I entered the light and stood up next to the federale. I smiled nervously as I saw his partners staring down at me with their submachine guns adorned across their chests.
Always Start With Hello
I spit out the first word that came to mind and said, “Hola!” greeting them in Spanish. My nervousness wore off immediately as they laughed and greeted me back. Then, feeling bolder, I handed my camera over and asked for a photograph of me in the tunnel.
I pulled myself out of the tunnel entrance and retrieved my camera from the federale. There, I took pictures of the sight from each angle, training the lens on areas that may hold clues for investigative follow-up.
I took one last look around and hopped back down into the tunnel, crawling back to the safety of the U.S. side of the border fence.
This was by no means a Super Tunnel that Gaynor talked about; this was a rudimentary tunnel dug by hand, not a machine.
Did drugs come through the tunnel? Maybe, but more than likely, it was for humans to get through.
This wasn’t my last time dealing with a drug tunnel. A few weeks later, I ended up thirty miles east, embedded with the U.S. Border Patrol conducting surveillance on another tunnel. But that’s an uneventful story for another day.