Drug tunnel found in Arizona, but it's no fancy, million-dollar underground corridor

In the era of narco-submarines and tanks, the tried and true tunnel remains popular, especially along Arizona's Mexican border. The latest reminds Douglas locals of the legendary one from 1990.

Benjie Sanders/The Arizona Daily Star/AP
In this 2001 file photo, a US Customs agent supervisor stands in a hole in a house in Nogales, Ariz., that leads to a tunnel that travels under the US-Mexican border as a drug smuggling route. Officials believe the tunnel had been used to smuggle $21 million worth of cocaine and marijuana into the United State. (AP Photo/The Arizona Daily Star,

The discovery this week of a drug tunnel inside a house in Douglas, in southeastern Arizona, rekindles memories of the legendary one area residents still talk about: a 270-foot elaborate passageway with lighting and a hydraulic system that authorities valued at more than $1 million.

That was back in 1990, around the time tunnels increasingly emerged as part of the drug-trafficking route along the Southwestern border. The sophisticated Douglas tunnel was used to haul cocaine from a luxury home in Mexico to a warehouse in the border town just a couple blocks from the rental home where the latest clandestine excavation has now been abruptly halted.

The one discovered late Tuesday has all the makings of a drug tunnel in-progress, according to Vincent Picard, a spokesman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is still unclear how far the tunnel extends.

“The tunnel was collapsed and yet there was recent activity that showed that they were trying to dig it back out,” he says.

No diggers or drugs were in sight when authorities arrived at the house to investigate a citizen’s report.

While the newest tunnel detection in Douglas proves the town is no stranger to underground illicit activity, it is Nogales, about 60 miles south of Tucson, that tops the charts when it comes to drug tunnels. Between 1990 and 2009, the US Border Patrol found at least 109 tunnels along the border with Mexico, all in California and Arizona. Sixty percent were in Nogales.

Since the federal fiscal year began Oct. 1, eight passageways were found through July in Arizona’s busy Tucson sector, says Border Patrol spokesman Mario Escalante. Most were in Nogales.

Whether crude or elaborate, a key factor for the presence of so many tunnels in Nogales is the underground sewer and flood-control network shared by the city and its Mexican neighbor of the same name that often connects to illegal passageways.

Just last week authorities found a 90-foot tunnel in Nogales that extended 45 feet into either side of the border, seized 2,600 pounds of marijuana, and made three arrests. A 30-foot tunnel, also in Nogales, came to light in May.

“It’s a swiss cheese down there,” Picard says of Nogales. “In Douglas, it’s a little more uncommon.”

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