- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2007

Federal agents executed a search warrant at a home in Nogales, Ariz., used to conceal the entrance to a recently constructed tunnel that stretched nearly 100 yards underground to a residence across the border in Mexico.

The so-called Nogales passageway is one of the most extensive smuggling tunnels uncovered along the southwestern border since the discovery of a massive tunnel south of San Diego in January 2006.

Since the September 11 attacks, federal authorities have discovered more than 40 cross-border tunnels along the U.S.-Mexico border in California and Arizona. U.S. authorities are conducting a $2.7 million project to fill in seven of the largest, including the one in Nogales, with asphalt and crushed aggregate.

Inside the tiny one-story Nogales home, agents from U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) discovered the tunnel”s entrance late Thursday afternoon in a utility room hidden beneath sheets of plywood weighted down with dirt-filled bags.

DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said the shaft of the narrow passage, reinforced in places with wood supports and sandbags, measured 3 feet by 3 feet at the Nogales entrance. He said the tunnel, which investigators believe had yet to be used, was equipped with lighting, but had no ventilation system.

When agents entered the Nogales home, Mr. Payne said, it was empty and largely unfurnished. Scattered on the floor were picks, a jack-hammer, and other equipment likely used in the excavation.

“Yesterday”s discovery is yet another reminder how desperate these criminal organizations are and the extent they will go to further their drug operations and endanger the security of our citizens,” said Douglas Hebert, acting special in charge of the DEA“s Phoenix field division.

“The DEA continues to work with its counterparts nationally and internationally to target and dismantle drug-trafficking organizations, as well as to block their smuggling routes into this country,” he said.

Mr. Payne said as ICE and DEA agents searched the Nogales home, officers from the Sonoran State Police made entry into the residence across the border in Nogales, Sonora, where they located the tunnel”s other entrance. At that location, he said, Mexican authorities arrested five suspects.

ICE and DEA are coordinating the ongoing investigation into the tunnel, which has been under observation since April. The two agencies have received substantial assistance in the case from the U.S. Border Patrol.

“Quick action by law enforcement ensured that this tunnel wouldn”t be used,” said Alonzo Pena, special agent in charge of the ICE office of investigations in Arizona. “If passages like these go undetected, they pose a potential threat to our nation”s security. ICE is committed to working with its law-enforcement partners to dismantle these tunnels and the criminal organizations behind them.”

ICE has temporarily blocked the tunnel’s U.S. entrance. It will be permanently filled in once the investigation is completed.