Foreign Policy Blogs

When is a Drug Tunnel Just a Hole in the Ground?

Douglas-Agua Prieta Drug TunnelWhen it’s not part of a larger, serious, and successful investigation into drug trafficking, one that ends with arrest warrants, criminal indictments, and major players going to jail.

The discovery of a drug tunnel, no matter how long it may be or how lavishly  outfitted–even the seizure of millions in coke or marijuana–means nothing, unless it leads authorities, in hot pursuit on both sides of the border, up the criminal hierarchies, to the drug lords, and their corrupt accomplices in the police, military, banks, business, and  government.To everybody waiting, in Mexico and the US, for their ‘taste.’

Make that ‘taste’ disappear.

That’s how you disrupt and distract the cartels.

Not by pouring cement down empty holes.

Drug Tunnel Discovered Between Otay Mesa and Tijuana 3 November 2010

International news outlets were all over the recent (11/3-4) discovery of a 600 yard-long drug tunnel (“the length of 6 football fields”) running between Otay Mesa and Tijuana.

The LA Times notes that the tunnel was “equipped with lighting, ventilation and a rail system,” but, to its credit, the paper goes on to report that “the passageway…is one of the few unearthed in recent years that appears to have been fully operational.” Extra points to the LA Times for reportorial perspicuity.

Peter Sanders, reporting for The Wall Street Journal, also earns kudos for his matter-of-fact conclusion in another piece on the Otay Mesa-Tijuana tunnel.

After an obligatory nod to ICE’s Office of Public Affairs (“I can promise you there are some very unhappy people in the cartel,” said John Morton, Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This discovery again shows their growing desperation in the face of heightened border security”), Sanders deadpans off the page with a simple statement of fact:

Federal agents in recent years have found a handful of drug and human smuggling tunnels in the San Diego area—typically before the tunnels were fully operational.

Several news reports immediately following the November 3rd tunnel discovery also seem to suggest an alternate text, a story in danger of slipping between the lines–“No arrests have been made on the Mexican side,” and “it is not yet known whether authorities in the US will be making any arrests.”

We now know that Carlos Enrique Cunningham, the driver of a tractor trailer linked to the warehouse in Otay Mesa, was apprehended transporting 10 tons of marijuana, and that both he and a companion he claims is his wife have been arrested on charges of “conspiring to distribute marijuana.” To date, no other arrests have been announced.

But that’s not all. While most reports on the Otay Mesa-Tijuana tunnel conclude that the operation as sophisticated as this one “must have been the work of a cartel,” no one has yet identified the trafficking organization, the cartel, behind the construction of the tunnel–the real test, both of commitment and skill, for federal investigators in the US and Mexico.

ICE has indicated that the investigation related to this latest tunnel discovery is ongoing.

That’s good news, because if Mexican and US authorities end  up with nothing more than $20 million worth of marijuana and a pair of tractor-trailer drivers on their way to jail–all PR sizzle with no steak–the message could be one residents on both sides of the US-Mexico border are tired of hearing: this investigation, lacking the requisite traction–evidence, support, and political backing–is over.

Mother of All Drug Tunnels: In 2006, Agents Discover Tunnel 7/10 of a Mile Long

January, 2006–a record find for drug cataphiles, when agents discovered a tunnel 7/10 of a mile long, again connecting  Otay Mesa and Tijuana. A New York Times report (1/26/06) devoted generous column inches to descriptions of the elaborate corridor:

The tunnel is 60 feet below ground at some points, five feet high, and nearly half a mile long, extending from a warehouse near the international airport in Tijuana, Mexico, to a vacant industrial building in Otay Mesa, Calif., about 20 miles southeast of downtown San Diego. The sophistication of the tunnel surprised officials, who found it outfitted with a concrete floor, electricity, lights and ventilation and groundwater pumping systems….

And while the amount of marijuana (2 tons/$1.5 million) seized was mentioned, few clues emerged offered regarding the tunnel’s owners, its length of operation, pending warrants or arrests.

No matter.

The discovery of this “massive” cross border tunnel, again connecting Otay Mesa and Tijuana, was a media dream, and for the law enforcement agencies who guided the press down through the subterranean passage, an easy, splashy, front-page success.

Big tunnel discoveries and drug seizures make for highly visual and simply explained photo ops.

It’s all about ‘bling’–the sudden hot tip, the swift targeting of a suspect vehicle or driver, the ad hoc construction of  a special tunnel task force from  local law enforcement talent, the hurried acquisition of a search warrant, and the lightening infiltration of an abandoned underground corridor–sophisticated or primitive,  sometimes just a sewer pipe busted open a few feet over the border in Mexico by a couple of guys with picks and shovels.

What’s missing, in still too many cases, are the guys-behind-the-scenes: the cartel mobsters, the tunnel architects and engineers, the money-men, and the operational brains of the operation. The criminal infrastructure that planned, financed, and successfully exploited the tunnel.

MIA as well are the cartel accomplices–the corrupt bureaucrats, businesspeople, military/enforcement authorities and public officials–on both sides of the border.

They were tipped off, or the traffickers were finished with and ready to ‘give up’ that particular tunnel, or the culprits, a wide cast in many cases, simply escaped by default, via a law enforcement investigation that didn’t play out the way it should have.

Tunnel Vision

According to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), multi-agency tunnel task forces have located 75 cross-border tunnels in the last four years and shut down 25.

What we don’t know is how many of these tunnels were non-operational.How many of these tunnels were empty.How many of these tunnels triggered productive investigations, led to indictments, arrests, and the incarceration of drug traffickers or other high-value targets.

These numbers and facts are hard to come by.

But what enforcement insiders do suggest is that the number of tunnels discovered over the past few years that actually resulted in respectable investigative followup hovers around 12–a dozen.

Take it from me–law enforcement agencies rush to advertise operational successes, but the web is curiously free of ICE or DEA press releases linking drug tunnels, criminal indictments, or the kinds of investigatory payoffs the public has a right to expect.

And while law enforcement spokespeople will tell you that the discovery of a tunnel is a signal that enforcement efforts have ‘driven the cartels underground”–a sign of “desperation” and the “extreme methods” used by Mexican cartels to smuggle dope”–the truth is that cross-border tunnels are just one trick, and a pretty ordinary one at that,  in a hefty criminal bag.

Mexican cartels have bored scores of tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years to beat ramped-up security at ports of entry and the rugged spaces in between. Nearly all of them linked cities on either side of Mexico’s border with California and Arizona.

The US-Mexico border is 1,986 miles long. And again, according to ICE, 125 tunnels have been discovered since the 1990’s. The value of the drugs seized in connection with the discoveries of these tunnels probably amounts to less than $200 million. And again, estimates of annual drug revenues realized by the cartels range from  $40 billion upwards.

How many cross-border tunnels can the cartels afford to build? How many tunnels have been, and continue to be operational? What’s the actual value of the drugs that have passed through these underground corridors, and why has the discovery of 75 or 125 tunnels yielded so little investigatory punch–the bottomline muscle US citizens depend on to counter the flow of illegal drugs into this country?

The old NRA euphemism about “guns don’t kill people…people do” springs to mind–tunnels aren’t responsible for drug trafficking, cartels are. We don’t stop trafficking by unearthing drug tunnels, but by using them as springboards to investigations that send traffickers and as many of their accomplices as possible to federal penitentiaries.

Let’s point that spotlight where it belongs, not into subterranean drug catacombs, but into the halls of government, the offices of drug czars, Senate Committee Rooms, and places where we can give people who campaign on “getting things done” a chance to really do something.


Follow the tunnels into Mexico and up the chain of cartel control, no matter where that leads. And if that means sending US law enforcement  across the border to take the initiative when Mexican authorities are dragging their feet, let’s just say “yes.”

What should law enforcement do when it discovers a drug tunnel?

One, ask the right questions.

  • Who’s controlling the operation? Providing the capital for its construction and maintenance? What gang or cartel? Which members of that organization?
  • How many of the laborers who built the mine, the architects, draftsmen, and engineers who made it happen have been killed? Where are the bodies?
  • Who are the suppliers? How are they getting their product to Mexico’s middlemen?
  • Which of the cartels’ Colombian connections are sending coke to Mexico? How does the coke or marijuana make it into the tunnel on the Mexican side, out of the tunnel on the US side, and then to the distributor in the US?
  • How does the drug revenue flow back through the tunnel from the US to Mexico? Who’s sending and who’s receiving?
  • How long has the tunnel been in operation and how much dope and narco-currency has traveled through it?

Two, don’t jump  the gun.

Forget those TV cameras, and focus on what ICE Director John Morton (in charge of the November 3rd tunnel operation in Otay Mesa) accurately described as “good, old-fashioned law enforcement”–surveillance (including aerial), intelligence (developing informants, cultivating trustworthy business contacts), technology, and ongoing, never-ending attention to connecting the dots–moving from the low-level tractor-trailer driver to the loaders, the warehouse workers, the managers, and up-the-ladder to the real prizes, the big traffickers and their cohorts in the ‘legitimate world’ of business and government.

Operation Catacomb

The 1990 discovery of a drug tunnel running between  Douglas, Arizona and  Agua Prieta, Mexico, probably triggered one of the most robust investigations ever linked to a cross-border tunnel–Operation Catacomb.

The investigation began in early 1990: an architectural draftsman who’d provided the Guzman gang with possible locations for a drug tunnel bisecting the Mexico-Arizona border, plus initial renderings, had sent his brother to collect the promised fee–$400,000 USD.

When the cartel murdered his brother, instead of paying him, the draftsman contacted a federal agent running a Customs and Border Protection office in Phoenix–he’d seen the agent on television, and thought he sounded like a standup guy.

The draftsman, now turned informant, wanted protection in trade for information.The Guzman organization had asked him to pinpoint the dozen most promising locations for the construction of a drug tunnel along the Arizona/California-Mexico border–the water table along that stretch is low.

After the informant had suggested locations (the Douglas-Aqua Prieta corridor in particular), cartel leaders brought in professional mine architects and engineers, as well as laborers (the bodies of 14 laborers later turned up in a Mexican well close to the US border) to finish the $1.4 million passageway.

A second informant told the federal agent who’d taken the lead on this case that local law enforcement around Douglas and across the border in Agua Prieta had been routinely apprised over the course of the previous six months that the tunnel was under construction and then in operation, but the response had been lethargic.

Now, in March 1990, the investigation came to life. Federal agents recruited engineers with sonar and high-tech surveying equipment to verify the tunnel location provided by informants.

Agents set up land-based and aerial surveillance, identified a private airport outside of Agua Prieta,where traffickers off-loaded Colombian cocaine,  cultivated more informants, culled intelligence from sources on both sides of the border, and hunkered down for three months of 24/7 “gumshoe detective work.”

Paydirt. US agents began following a tractor trailer that  traveled six days a week from a building supply warehouse in Douglas, AZ, to Phoenix, where the driver picked up supplies–ostensibly traveling back to the building supply warehouse in Douglas. In the US, the tunnel ended underneath a building supply warehouse and in Mexico, under a luxury residence belonging to a major Mexican drug lord.

On one occasion, as usual, agents followed the building supply truck from Phoenix as it headed back to Douglas, but this time, the driver pulled over on a dirt road about 20 miles outside Phoenix and slowly rolled down a dirt road to a small derelict farmhouse at the end of the drive. Agents, sprawled across the empty fields, watched as the driver unloaded cargo hidden under the bed of the tractor-trailer, 2, 258 pounds of cocaine pulling down the rig’s suspension, waiting to spill out onto American streets.

The coke went into four U-Haul box trucks, heading to LA for distribution. After agents seized the coke, and only then, they asked for a warrant to go into the tunnel.

An agent with a jackhammer focused on a drain in the middle of a floor in the huge (big enough to contain 6 tractor-trailer rigs) building supply warehouse in Douglas. Once the drain came off, a ladder led agents down a 40 foot shaft–a vertical passage to a horizontal corridor the length of a football field with compartments big enough to store 5 tons of cocaine.

On the Mexican side, the tunnel led to a small chamber equipped with a hydraulic lift that raised the ceiling and allowed traffickers to enter the ‘recreation room’ of a luxury home above.

In this cartel ‘rec room,’ equipped with an expensive pool table and other amenities, agents found photos of U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and military officials, posing around the pool table with cartel top dogs and  Mexican businessman/trafficker, Francisco Rafael CAMARENA-Macias.

Camarena was extradited to the United States in 2002 and later indicted for transporting tons of cocaine for the Mexican-based Joaquin Guzman-Loera narcotics smuggling organization, involved in transporting cocaine from Colombia through Mexico to the United States on behalf of the Medellin and Cali organizations. In 2004, US authorities also arrested the architect of the Douglas-Agua Prieta tunnel, Felipe de Jesus Corona-Verbera.

In addition to these arrests, US agents seized more than 13 tons of cocaine and $10 million in cash.A Mexican Comandante, promised asylum in the US, led agents to a separate ‘cash house’ near Agua Priete, and a group of kids who’d discovered the bodies of tunnel diggers in a well within a stone’s distance of the Arizona border also directed agents to ‘a diaper factory’ in Mexico, a concrete rectangle surrounded by concertina wire. The factory turned out to be both a holding area for drugs and an “execution site” for uncooperative cartel associates or tunnel workers who ‘knew too much.’

Operation Catacomb was a wide-ranging investigation, not a one-time hit. In the end, agents estimated  the  Douglas-Agua PrietaTunnel had been up and running for at least six months. Sources close to the case estimate more than 144 tons of cocaine entered the US through the Douglas-Agua Prieta Tunnel–if that is so, then  the value of the cocaine traveling through the tunnel into the US over the course of 6 months, estimated at $20,000 USD per kilo, would exceed $2.3 billion USD.

Tunnel Towns–Money Talks

That’s big money, but so is the amount cartels use to buy the silence or complicity of organizations or individuals who might obstruct their operations.

The Mayor of Agua Prieta, for example, told US agents he had been paid 55k per month to ignore and thus facilitate the construction and operation of the cross border tunnel, and that similar sums had gone to players throughout the ‘tunnel towns’ of Agua Prieta, Mexico, and Douglas, Arizona. He also reported that the then-Governor of Sonora, when offered the same deal, had suggested that his greater authority and rank warranted greater remuneration. The last the Mayor knew, the Governor and the Guzman organization were in negotiations.

US officials were also enlisted (money talks in any language), and businesspeople on both sides of the border, swayed by the realpolitik of thriving industry and steady dollars, often became ‘partners’ in the tunnel business, community stakeholders in protecting a source of untaxed, unreported, and seemingly unending income.

How many ‘tunnel towns’ on the US-Mexico border are currently collaborating with traffickers in 2010?


The reasons for short-circuiting investigations linked to the discovery of cross border drug tunnels are many, and they are not dissimilar to the reasons so many investigations into cartel money-laundering falter: inept and/or uncoordinated enforcement responses; lack of cooperation on the part of  Mexican authorities; obstruction, passive or aggressive, by corrupt/complicit officials, police, military, federal agents, and businesspeople on cartel payrolls; and the self-interest of political leaders who understand that economics trumps enforcement or military intervention, especially when the beneficiaries of this type of blindness constitute powerful (manufacturing and financial services) lobbies in Washington.

It is important to remember, however, as ICE Director John Morton points out, that cross-border tunnels can be used to transport not just drugs, but also terrorists and the tools of their trade–including weapons of mass destruction–into the United States.

Does our pledge to respect Mexico’s ‘sovereignty,’ which prohibits the US from acting unilaterally in regard to investigations involving Mexico, cover that kind of risk?

There is a familiar euphemism–a last resort–for government officials and lobbyists who run up against these tough realities and the walls of US-Mexico foreign policy, walls we struggle to reinforce even as our southwest border disintegrates: “I just don’t know what’s happening to all the money and resources we’re sending down there to fight this problem,the drug violence . . . we’re sending millions, and it just seems to disappear into some sort of limbo . . . it’s just gone.”

Wait a  minute.

I’ve just been handed a note.

It’s for Washington (“Urgent and Confidential”).

It reads, “Found limbo. It’s in Mexico.”



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.