They can reach as deep as seventy feet, and they tend to be tall enough for an adult to walk or ride through. Otay Mesa, which is bounded on the north by Brown Field Municipal Airport and on the south by Mexico, consists of highways, strip malls, and a few hundred warehouses clustered near the border. Most supertunnels terminate inside these warehouses, making them difficult to detect. The amount of warehouse space in Otay Mesa has nearly quadrupled since the mid-nineties, and the expansion has been almost as frenetic in Garita de Otay.
Forklifts, jackhammers, and heavy vehicles attract little attention. Cartel trucks back into loading bays, pallets are loaded in, and the drugs are delivered north to distribution hubs.
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There are three official border crossings near Otay Mesa; one, for commercial vehicles, is inside the industrial zone. Hundreds of federal agents—from Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement—work in a pair of large unmarked buildings on the edge of the Otay Mesa district. Among them are the ten members of the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, a multi-agency group created in The agents have found an average of two tunnels a year, but most of the people they have arrested have been low-tier Sinaloa operatives such as truck drivers and warehouse supervisors.
Information within the cartel is compartmentalized, so that even when workers are caught and tempted with plea bargains they are unable to divulge much actionable intelligence. How the heck do they build these things so well?
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This is highly sophisticated work. A lot of people think that you have a shovel and you dig. In December of , a nineteen- year-old named Fernando walked into Mama Mia, a pizzeria in a Tijuana strip mall, and asked for a job application. As he filled out the form, a stranger entered the shop.
According to statements later collected by Mexican authorities, the man handed Fernando his phone number and asked whether he wanted a job cleaning a convenience store. Fernando never heard back from Mama Mia. The man offered good money—twelve hundred pesos about seventy-five dollars a week—and Fernando agreed to go with him to look at the job site. From the strip mall, a highway leads north, past the graffiti-covered concrete walls surrounding the Tijuana Airport to the pitted roads of Garita de Otay, where convoys of eighteen-wheelers stir up dust that never quite settles.
The warehouses, bland and beige, resemble cardboard boxes. They stopped in front of a structure with no identifying marks except the street address, stencilled in black. Inside, behind a rolling gate, was a loading bay big enough to accommodate a dump truck. Inside was a storage room with cinder-block walls. The man told Fernando that things had changed: he would be digging a tunnel, not cleaning a store. If he tried to leave, he and his family would be killed. Around that time, sixteen other men fell into the same trap. Across Tijuana, at bus stations and on busy street corners, they were lured to the warehouse by the prospect of temporary jobs.
Some said that they had been promised safe passage across the border in exchange for a few hours of construction work. Fernando was the youngest of them, and one of only two Tijuana natives. According to the men, the overseer of the project, who called himself Carlos, was in his mid-thirties, with a thin, weedy mustache and a baseball cap pulled low over his brow. Carlos split the men into two groups. Fernando worked the day shift, from 6 A. Carlos brought the workers food and made sure no one left the building. From an opening in the floor of the storage room, a shaft descended about thirty-five feet to a small chamber, where grapefruit-size rocks were embedded in the soil.
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Most of the time, five or six men worked inside the chamber, lengthening it into a tunnel by chipping away at the earth with handheld electric spades and filling sandbags with dirt and rocks. Three other workers hauled the bags out using a makeshift elevator—a large metal cage connected to an electric pulley system. The sandbags were then piled onto wooden pallets in the loading bay. Occasionally, Carlos was joined by other overseers, who wore ski masks.
The workers gained about five metres a day. At that rate, they would pass the border in about three months and reach Otay Mesa a few weeks later. Photos subsequently showed that the ceiling of the tunnel was slightly arched, a standard characteristic of Sinaloa supertunnels, which helps to distribute the pressure of the earth and prevent collapse. The red beam of a laser pointer, running through the dusty air in the center of the passageway, kept the diggers on course.
In humid, confined spaces, oxygen can drop to fatal levels.
With pipe clamps, the men affixed a black plastic tube to the top of the tunnel for ventilation. Later, the rails could carry drug shipments to Otay Mesa. The walls retained their form as the men worked, but threats were ever present. The history of subterranean excavation, from the ancient Egyptians to the coal miners of Appalachia, is dense with tragedy—any strike of a pickaxe can release a deadly rush of groundwater, spark a methane fireball, or disrupt the soil enough to cause a collapse.
The biggest risk to the Tijuana diggers was probably groundwater. In the Otay Mesa region, its presence is unusually difficult to predict. They followed a slight upward grade, which was likely a safety precaution: if they encountered groundwater, it could flow downhill, to the origin of the tunnel, where it would be pumped out. In February, , the Mexican Army, acting on an anonymous tip, raided the warehouse in Tijuana. Nearby, two men hauled sacks of dirt out of the elevator.
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While the soldiers talked to the men, four others remained in the chamber, wondering why it was taking so long for the elevator to come back down. Eventually, all the workers were brought in for questioning, but they claimed to have no knowledge of drugs or smuggling. Fernando and the other diggers were taken to La Mesa prison, about four miles from the warehouse, where they are still being held. They may have been lucky to be arrested. Joseph DiMeglio, the head of the Tunnel Task Force, told me that, when a tunnel is finished, diggers are sometimes recaptured and forced to work on another project.
He hired pilots to fly shipments of cocaine from Colombia to private landing strips in Mexico. The drugs were loaded into vans fitted with false floors and then driven to Douglas, Arizona, and from there to Los Angeles. In , Corona-Verbera, with his wife and children, moved into a trailer park on Route in Douglas. He hired a local contractor, William Woods, to build a gazebo beside his trailer.
He also hired Woods for a bigger project: a two-thousand-square-foot warehouse, to be built about a block from the Mexican border. The blueprints looked professional, but oddities soon emerged. Corona-Verbera said that the building would be used as a wash bay, to hose down trucks. His plans called for drain openings, but, according to Adalberto Romero, a worker at the site, the openings did not lead to functional drains.
He asked Corona-Verbera about this. One night, at a nearby work site just south of the border, Romero saw more than twenty workmen, who appeared to be from rural Mexico, pushing wheelbarrows in the dark. Within a few months, the cartel had its first supertunnel. It originated at a Sinaloa-owned house in Agua Prieta, a Mexican border town, and ended some three hundred feet away, at the warehouse in Douglas. At the house in Agua Prieta, the only way to access the tunnel was to turn on an outdoor water spigot; this triggered a hydraulic system that lifted up a billiard table in a game room on the ground floor, exposing a ladder to the tunnel.
Tell them to send all the drugs they can send. In May, , a team raided the house in Agua Prieta. In the game room, Terry Kirkpatrick, a customs agent, moved the billiard table and pulled back a rug, exposing a patch of concrete. He used a jackhammer to drill through the floor.
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Under the concrete was a subterranean chamber larger than the game room. Later, another agent happened to turn on the water spigot, causing the concrete slab to rise toward the ceiling as the agents looked on, stunned. After the raid, Corona-Verbera and his family fled to Mexico. Instead of lying low in a Mexico City safe house, Corona-Verbera left the city to be with his family in Guadalajara.
Two months after the tunnel was discovered, a group of Sinaloa suspects were detained. Two of them led Kirkpatrick and other agents about thirty miles outside of Agua Prieta and showed them a mass grave. Here, they said, were the diggers who had built the tunnel to Arizona. Meanwhile, Sinaloa was slowly gaining ground near Tijuana. Soon, its second supertunnel project, and its first on the West Coast, was under construction. The soil around Otay Mesa is a mixture of volcanic ash, glassy fragments, and clay. Their low-profile design creates a sleek appearance on any roofline, and their pre-fabricated light tunnel makes them quick and easy to install.
Not to mention, they come with a year tunnel warranty. Flexible tunnels are recommended when installation around obstacles within the loft space is required. They are the easiest product to install because of the maneuverability of the material. Rigid tunnels are recommended when there is a straight, unobstructed path from the roof to the ceiling, although they can be maneuvered slightly. Product Registration Catalog. Learn more. Bring daylight to every room in your home Every room in your home deserves to be filled with natural light—even those in the center of your home.
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