Drug traffickers increasingly use tunnels to cross from Mexico
into the U.S. Authorities fear the routes could be used to move
By Richard Marosi, The Los Angeles Times
MEXICALI, Mexico — Jose Mendoza came to this sun-baked border
city to work at a used-car lot for his friend Raul "El Chino" Zepeda.
When he arrived, he found the yard littered with junked automobiles
and the inside of the office splattered with mud.
not selling cars; he was spending his time in a hole behind the
office, working with two other men to dig a tunnel to California,
According to Mexican court records and
attorneys, Zepeda had a message for his friend: Keep quiet and work,
or you will die.
Working 10 hours a day as Mendoza stood
lookout, Zepeda and his helpers dug through the floor of a windowless
room behind the office, 15 feet down a shaft, then north toward
Calexico, Calif., prosecutors allege.
Advancing one to two
feet a day, working in shorts and boots in the desert heat, the men
labored undetected for four months, under the border road, beyond the
border fence, on toward a safe house that Zepeda had bought on the
They had nearly made it when a water crew in
Calexico accidentally dug into the passage and alerted U.S.
Today, Mendoza, Zepeda and two other men are in
an overcrowded Mexicali jail, accused of tunneling, a pico
y a palo — by pick and shovel — 700 feet from
the El Pelon car shop to a neighborhood of pastel homes in
The dig was among a surge in tunnel discoveries
since border security tightened after the 2001 terrorist attacks. In
the last three years, authorities have unearthed 13 subterranean
incursions into the United States, most of them along the border
between San Diego and Calexico. By comparison, 15 were found in the
12-year period before the attacks.
The latest tunnel was
found Friday in San Ysidro when a U.S. Border Patrol bus sank into a
shallow passage near a parking lot by the border. The 15-foot-long,
unfinished tunnel had been started in a garbage-strewn lot in
Tijuana. Its opening was covered by an old mattress. The tunnel
stretched 10 feet into the United States.
worry that tunnels — used primarily to smuggle drugs —
also could pass weapons or terrorists. Tunnels typically are found
through tips from informants or by chance, as with Zepeda's alleged
work in September or another tunnel found in Calexico when its earth
ceiling collapsed as a Border Patrol agent drove over it, just like
what happened Friday in San Ysdiro.
After the discovery of
the Calexico tunnels, which were a few blocks from each other,
federal authorities sank sensors into the earth, marking the first
attempt to use sophisticated mining technology to detect the work of
manual laborers driven underground by greed or fear.
Zepeda, the short and burly alleged ringleader of the Calexico tunnel
crew; nor Mendoza, 55; nor their alleged accomplices, Joaquin Lazaro,
Mendoza's 25-year-old former taco helper from Oaxaca, Mexico, and
Guillermo "El Loco" Liera, 43, a car mechanic from Mexicali; had any
The men say they helped build the
tunnel under orders from drug traffickers. Mexican authorities
believe that they were out for profit, and have charged them with
conspiracy and racketeering.
What the men lacked in
experience, they made up for with determination and grit, said a
Mexican law enforcement official who recently displayed the tunnel
opening to a reporter.
The official flashed a light down the
15-foot deep shaft, revealing a plastic bucket floating in the
partially flooded hole. Strewn nearby was a mud-encrusted boot and a
The tunnel, preserved as a piece of
evidence, followed a zigzag route dimly illuminated by a string of
lightbulbs. Some of the dark recesses were passable only by crawling,
and were so narrow that only one man could swing a pick at a time,
"The first thing you feel is the heat. Then
claustrophobia sets in. You start sweating. You feel like you can't
move," the official said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity
— many police officers, investigators and prosecutors have been
killed in recent years by drug traffickers — the official said
he had conducted only a limited inspection of the tunnel. "I have a
family," he said, explaining that the risk of collapse was too
Along the border, the feats of the tunnel builders
fascinate Mexican and U.S. law enforcement authorities.
Tunnels under the border have stretched as long as four football
fields, and have turned up under lift-up staircases, fireplaces and
storm drains. They start and end in nondescript houses, businesses or
farms tucked among thousands of other buildings along the
Some are equipped with sophisticated ventilation and
lighting systems. Cart and rail networks are sometimes used to carry
dirt and drugs. In 2002, tunnel builders dug under a parking lot used
by federal customs agents in Arizona. Last year, Tijuana smugglers
popped up from a storm drain in a parking lot in San Ysidro, a few
feet from the busiest border crossing in the world.
extremely clever. A feat of engineering," said Misha Piastro, a
spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego,
standing over the storm drain used as the tunnel exit.
Tijuana passage was unearthed about the same time as Zepeda and his
crew were allegedly hard at work in Mexicali, 120 miles east.
Zepeda, a small-time drug smuggler who had served time in an American
jail, claimed in his initial statements to Mexican police that he had
been forced to dig the tunnel to pay drug traffickers who had accused
him of stealing some of their cocaine.
Zepeda said the
traffickers beat him so severely that he offered them a deal. "He
decided to change his life to build the tunnel, even though he had
never done so before," reads the account in Zepeda's declaration.
He has since recanted his initial account, saying through
his attorney that it was obtained through torture. Zepeda now denies
any knowledge of a tunnel. But some of his initial claims are
supported by the three men he allegedly hired to help in the venture.
All three had hit hard times when Zepeda allegedly
approached them with job offers. Mendoza and Lazaro had been eking
out a living selling tacos in Colonia Mariano Matamoros, a sprawling
shantytown in the eastern foothills of Tijuana.
forklift operator, had been laid off from work at a maquiladora
plant in Mexicali. When he wasn't fixing neighbors' cars in his
frontyard, he would go fishing with his daughter on the All-American
Canal down the block.
The men said they were promised $200 to
$300 a week to sell and fix used cars. But authorities say the men
knew what Zepeda was really up to.
He had rented an auto yard
under a McDonald's sign on traffic-clogged Avenida Cristobal Colon,
across the street from the fenced border with Calexico.
reportedly told Mendoza, who suffers from heart problems, to attend
to occasional customers. Meanwhile, in the windowless room behind the
office, the digging began.
To soften the dirt and keep the
dust down, the tunnelers watered the walls with a hose. To shore up
the ceiling, they installed wooden beams. They also laid a wooden
floor so they could pull dirt-laden carts out of the tunnel.
The deeper into Calexico they went, the more fearful they became of
being buried alive, said Mexican authorities. The fears were
well-founded, experts said.
"It's a dangerous activity
— what they were doing," said Nicholas Crawford, director of
the Center for Caves and Karst Studies at Western Kentucky
Another challenge, experts say, was determining
directions underground. The men did not appear to have used compasses
or laser equipment that could have kept them on a straight path.
Zepeda said he intended to come up in a house he had
purchased on 2nd Street. But the tunnel veered at several points as
it inched under the border road, which is patrolled by border
At one point, the tunnel seemed headed toward the
peach-colored home owned by Margarita Madera.
"It's so scary
thinking that a terrorist or drugs can come right under the house,"
Through the four months of digging, officials
say, Mendoza watched for trouble. Liera allegedly used his 1968 truck
to haul the dirt to a landfill and buy supplies.
dug the tunnel is unclear. Mexican authorities believe Lazaro and
Liera worked with Zepeda, but the men deny it. When the Calexico
water crew discovered the work Sept. 12, Mexican police found Mendoza
and Lazaro sleeping in the office just outside the tunnel opening,
authorities said. Zepeda and Liera were arrested later when they
showed up for work.
The men insist that they are not
superhuman tunnel rats.
Liera's family members say he was
hired merely to haul dirt from the site to a landfill, and was too
much of a miedoso — scaredy cat — to work in a
dark and claustrophobic tunnel.
"He's the type that sleeps
with the lights on," said Liera's wife, Martha, interviewed in her
small home in Mexicali. "There's no way he went in that
Zepeda's family was unavailable for comment.
In the end, being discovered might have saved the men's lives,
officials say. "When they finished, they would have been killed,"
said one Mexican law enforcement source.
"It's the law of the
drug traffickers: They don't leave witnesses."