Nogales drug smuggling tunnels have seemingly non-existent over last couple of years

Just a few years ago it was a normal sight for Arizonans residents watching the news -- the discovery of drug tunnels across southern Arizona and beyond.
Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 10:41 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Just a few years ago it was a normal sight for Arizonans residents watching the news -- the discovery of drug tunnels across southern Arizona and beyond.

But suddenly, things have changed.

“The presence down here was a game changer because this was a very dangerous place,” said federal agent Christopher Brinkhoff.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Nogales brought 13 News down into the grand tunnel at the DeConcini port of entry, to see for ourselves what’s changed.

It’s covered for about a mile and then the tunnel opens to the surface and ends up in the Santa Cruz River. For that reason, it had been a popular place to try to smuggle drugs into the United States.

And it became dangerous in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“Nogales is known as one of the tunnel capitals in the United States,” Brinkhoff said. “There’s been 230 hand-dug, cross-border tunnels in the United States of America. 118 of them have been right here in Nogales. One mile to the east and one mile to the west is where all of them have been.”

But it’s been years since a tunnel was found in Nogales.

October 2020 was the last discovery of one of these channels, marking the 127th found since 1990. So what seems to be working to stop this?

CBP said increased presence and teamwork.

“Our working with the Mexican authorities has been huge. It’s led to 17 discovered cross-border tunnels and a few incomplete tunnels as well...but that partnership has been huge because it also generates a good partnership on the surface as well. We have an international liaison agent who specializes in that, and who’s built the relationship here in Nogales which is really strong,” said Brinkhoff.

But perhaps a more grim contributor to the lack of tunnels is the change in the type of drug being trafficked.

Southern Arizona is no stranger to seeing the devastating effects of fentanyl in the community. And unfortunately, it’s a much easier drug to conceal than marijuana was at the peak of these smuggling attempts.

“Smuggling meth, cocaine or fentanyl, things of that nature can be done on a much smaller capacity and the need for that tunnel isn’t as necessary because it’s much harder to smuggle 500-1000 pounds of marijuana than it is 50 pounds of meth,” Brinkhoff said.

But that doesn’t mean border patrol will rest on its laurels.

“The minute we give this up...we cannot change our focus. If we change our focus as border patrol agents in a subterranean environment, they will take this back in a heartbeat,” said Brinkhoff.

Training is key.

There are about 200 confined space certified agents at the Nogales station with specialized training, and they continue to train regularly--from being in tight spaces to monitoring their air quality while in a tunnel.

“We carry this equipment here, it monitors our air. So it reads our oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and combustibles so if any dangerous air is there, this will alert us because that’s our biggest danger besides physical collapse of the tunnelh,” he said.

It’s a danger that agents will continue to come face to face with, as they work to keep dangerous drugs out of the United States.

“We always assume that there’s something in the works, and all we can do is keep doing our job.”