By FERNANDA SANTOS
February 22, 2014
NOGALES, Ariz. — Tom Pittman has made a career as a Border Patrol agent here guarding this city’s underground drainage system, where the tunnels that carry sewage and storm runoff between the United States and Mexico are also busy drug-smuggling routes. Over the years, he has crawled and slithered past putrid puddles, makeshift latrines and discarded needles left behind by drug users, relying on instincts, mostly, to gauge the risks ahead.
It is a dirty and dangerous business, but these days, there is a robot for that.
Three robots, out of four in use by the agency along the entire southern border, are newly assigned to the Border Patrol station here. The reason is in the numbers: Most of the tunnels discovered along the border lead from Nogales, Mexico, to Nogales, Ariz., out of sight of the agents, cameras and drones that blanket the ground above. This month, federal agents closed the largest one found so far, a 481-foot passageway aired by fans and lit by lamps hanging from wires that ran along the tunnel’s walls.
The robots are just the latest tactic in a vexing battle by the federal authorities to try to stem the flow of drugs through the tunnels, considered prime pieces of real estate by the smuggling groups that build and control them. Border Patrol agents have tried dumping concrete inside the tunnels to render them unusable, and installing cameras and motion detectors to alert them of suspicious movement underground. But still the tunnel diggers persist.
The robots, valued for their speed and maneuverability, can serve as the first eyes on places considered too risky for humans to explore.
“If anyone is going to get hurt, it better be that robot,” said Mr. Pittman, a supervisory agent here.
Along the southern border, drug smuggling has remained stubbornly prolific, with seizures happening not just in the tunnels, but also at legal ports of entry and among illegal border crossers carrying bales of marijuana in their backpacks. Some 2.9 million pounds of drugs, mostly marijuana, were seized by Customs and Border Protection agents in the past fiscal year; 1.3 million of those pounds were seized in Arizona, the largest amount among the four states that border Mexico, according to agency statistics. Of the 45 cross-border tunnels found in the Southwest in the past three fiscal years, 25 were in Nogales — not counting the partly finished tunnels the agents found — and three more have been uncovered this year.
The tunnels are part of a sophisticated enterprise. The groups that control the smuggling routes in the Mexican Nogales — the Sinaloa cartel on the east side of the city, the Beltrán-Leyva cartel on the west — have an understanding: One side pays the other to use the areas it holds, both “above ground and underground,” said Special Agent Alex Garcia of Homeland Security Investigations, who leads the border tunnel task force here.
A senior American law enforcement official said Saturday that the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the world’s most-wanted drug lord, had been captured.
Many of the tunnel diggers are believed to come from the copper mines of Cananea, Mexico, about 45 miles southeast of Nogales. They use tools with short handles because, in the tunnels here, there is no room to stand up straight, Mr. Garcia said.
That does not bother the tunnel-detecting robots. They have cameras that look up, down and sideways, in front of them and behind them. Controlled remotely by joysticks, they glide, bump and scrape along dark, cramped areas, where the air is not safe for humans to breathe for long. One model sounds and looks like the remote-controlled Humvees sold in toy stores. The other, with its bullet-shaped body and shiny blue and silver shell, seems as if it had been pulled right off a sci-fi movie set.
Among the daily duties shared by Mr. Pittman and a small group of agents certified to search confined spaces is to comb through Nogales’s drainage lines, which the smugglers often tap into to push their loads north. The agents look for signs of disturbance, like a patch of plastic on a steel pipe or scarring where the metal should be smooth.
To get ready for this work, the human agents “have to put on kneepads, elbow pads — we’ve got to put on helmets, gloves,” said Kevin Hecht, the deputy patrol agent in charge of the Border Patrol station in Nogales and one of the agency’s foremost experts on illicit tunnels. “Sometimes we have to put on Tyvek suits,” he said, referring to the coveralls that protect against the hazards that can lurk below drainage lines.
The robots, on the other hand, need no preparation other than the flick of a switch.
They scour the tunnels much faster than the agents can, and in the complicated work of securing the border underground, to waste time is to risk losing ground to the smugglers. Eric S. Balliet, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Nogales, said the agents in the tunnel task force had closed, on average, one tunnel a month in Nogales since October 2010. (The Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, and the Drug Enforcement Administration are also part of the task force.)
“At any given moment, there’s a tunnel being planned, under construction or in operation in and around this city,” Mr. Balliet said.
The large tunnel found here this month linked an abandoned home in Mexico to an occupied house not far from the border. The drugs were taken from there in hollowed-out couches or inside washing machines, according to the criminal complaint; three men were arrested on drug-conspiracy charges.
Many of the tunnels that are found end in inconspicuous places like this. One of them, discovered in December, exited into a backyard shed. Another, found last February, ended at an embankment behind the border fence, near a spot where a different tunnel had been closed in March 2012.
Nogales, Ariz., recently banned parking on a section of International Street, which runs parallel to the fence, after a tunnel exit was found there, less than 100 feet from a border crossing. Smugglers inside the tunnel had used a jackhammer to raise a piece of concrete cut from the pavement. Then they pushed bales of marijuana through the fake bottom of a refrigerated truck parked right above the hole.
Task force agents sometimes observe a tunnel for months before moving in. A whiteboard in the bunker from which they operate in Rio Rico, a town just north of Nogales, listed the nine open investigations they have had since January 2013. An inquiry might start with a tip from a disaffected tunnel digger or a breach found by one of the robots along the drainage lines in the United States.