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Friday, 30 June 2000

Drug agents find new tunnel - in use

By Tim Steller

Nogales drug agents discovered another tunnel yesterday morning, this time as it was being used for smuggling.

It was the fourth drug tunnel discovered by agents of the Santa Cruz County Metro Task Force in the last 1 1/2 years.

The agents were sweeping underground washes that cross the border at Nogales when they got word of suspicious activity nearby, said Lt. Raul Rodriguez, commander of the task force.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent standing guard at the opening of the Morley Avenue wash heard two-way radios being operated inside the covered wash, Rodriguez said.

The agents then headed north inside the underground wash that flows below Morley, Rodriguez said. About one mile north of the border, they looked inside a storm drain that empties into the wash.

"One of the agents peeked in there and smelled marijuana," said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada.

Seven wrapped bundles of marijuana were lying in the storm drain, a rope tied around them.

The rope extended from the storm drain up through a hand-dug tunnel, to an above-ground apartment 20 to 30 feet away.

After obtaining a search warrant, agents searched the apartment and a nearby car.

Inside the apartment were another 50 pounds of marijuana. The car, a late-model Ford Focus, contained 190 pounds more. Altogether the marijuana weighed 310 pounds.

The smugglers "were yanking it in, and apparently they found out law enforcement was in there and they boogied," Estrada said. "We interrupted their operation."

Nogales has two large underground washes. Water flows from the Mexican side of the border, beneath the downtown port of entry, and travels either under Grand Avenue or under the parallel avenue, Morley.

The underground portions of the washes are up to 10 feet high and 10 to 20 feet wide, but the covering of both washes ends about a mile north of the border. Border Patrol agents are constantly stationed at the points where the washes come into the open.

City workers visit the underground washes twice per week, guided by a Nogales Police Department tactical unit, Estrada said.

They go in to repair grates that migrants sometimes break in an effort to enter the country illegally.

This time, the task force agents joined in to inspect the underground washes.

The tunnel they found was the first one to attach to the Morley Avenue wash, rather than the Grand Avenue wash.

This tunnel was hand-dug, like the others, but also had wood supports, Estrada said.

From the living room of the apartment on La Castellana Drive, it went down 9 feet, then about 20 feet west toward the sidewalk.

There, the tunnel-diggers broke through the corrugated-metal wall of a storm drain.

That hole in the storm drain was only a few feet from the main wash, where the smugglers travel.