Friday, July 09, 2004

The Seattle Times: Mexican smugglers stay busy quietly mining their business

The Seattle Times: Nation & World: Mexican smugglers stay busy quietly mining their business
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.
Zepeda was 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, authorities allege.

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 U.S. side.

They had nearly made it when a water crew in Calexico accidentally dug into the passage and alerted U.S. authorities.

Today, Mendoza, Zepeda and two other men are in an overcrowded Mexicali jail, accused of tunneling by pick and shovel 700 feet from the car shop to a neighborhood of pastel-colored homes in Calexico.

The dig was among a surge in tunnel discoveries since border security tightened after the 2001 terrorist attacks. In the past 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.

Last Friday in San Ysidro, Calif., when a U.S. Border Patrol bus sank into a shallow passage near a parking lot by the border, another tunnel was found. 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.

U.S. authorities 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 or another tunnel found in Calexico when its earth ceiling collapsed as a Border Patrol agent drove over it.

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.

Neither 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 experience tunneling.

The men claim 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.

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 400 yards, 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 border.

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.

"It was 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.

The Tijuana passage was unearthed about the same time that Zepeda and his crew were 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.

He has since recanted his initial account, saying through his attorney that it was obtained through torture. 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.

He told Mendoza, who suffers from heart problems, to attend to occasional customers. Meanwhile, in the windowless room behind the office, the digging began.

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 University.

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 Second Street. But the tunnel veered at several points as it inched under the border road, which is patrolled by border agents.

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.


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