Raids Don’t Keep Tunnel City From Humming Underground
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
The authorities on Thursday presented the results of a raid in Tijuana: bricks of marijuana and a smuggling tunnel into California.
By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: December 1, 2011
TIJUANA, Mexico — Squatting and sweating inside the latest drug tunnel found here in this Pacific border city, it was easy to understand the amazement expressed by Mexican and American officials. This one was a stunner.
A motorized cart on metal rails ensured quick passage.
The tunnel ran for almost half a mile, with wooden planks holding off the earth on all sides. Energy-saving light bulbs illuminated the route. A motorized cart on metal rails ensured quick passage, while a steel elevator hidden beneath the floor tiles in a warehouse made the 40-foot descent to the tunnel’s entrance feel like the slow drop into an unregulated mine shaft.
And yet, here is the simple fact obscured by superlatives like “the most elaborate” and “the most sophisticated,” which officials seem to lather on each new find.
Tunnels are Tijuana. They have become an inevitable, always-under-construction or always-operating part of city life, as entrenched as cheap pharmacies and strip clubs.
Residents now shrug them off. “If you have a lot of money, you can do anything,” said Blanca Samaniego, 36, as she walked by the warehouse where Mexican officials unveiled the tunnel on Wednesday. “It will never change. It will never stop.”
The ground beneath her neighborhood in the hills — near the airport and the upgraded, shimmering border fence patrolled 24/7 by American agents — has been punched full of holes for years. Almost every kind of building has been used to hide a logistical operation that is as much about the American taste for a high as it is about the low-down removal of dirt.
Just a few weeks ago, below a more rudimentary warehouse nearby, the authorities found a different tunnel with an elaborate ventilation system. A few blocks from that, there sits an empty flophouse, where thick concrete now caps a passageway discovered by the authorities last year. Farther east, residents note a tunnel found in 2008, and just past the next major intersection, there are two more: one under a small home and the other below a bodega across from a factory.
Other tunnels have been found downtown, near the main border crossing. Wherever there is a border fence climbing high, there seems to have been an attempt to burrow below, usually to a parking lot in California where drugs can be hauled through a manhole cover, or to a business that almost looks legitimate.
In the latest case, the tunnel ran to Hernandez Produce Warehouse, a fruit and vegetable company in California whose only product seemed to be green and best when smoked.
Luis Ituarte, 69, an artist who runs a gallery here called La Casa del Túnel — where a tunnel was found about decade ago — said that Tijuana officials would be smart to move beyond publicizing their subterranean finds and then shutting them down. He argued that Tijuana should capitalize on its historic identity as a city that has been serving up vice since 1907, when President Porfirio Díaz legalized gambling, or 1920, when the United States made alcohol illegal.
“Las Vegas, Tijuana and Havana were all built by the same kind of people,” Mr. Ituarte said. “Only Vegas has taken on its bad reputation.”
Not that this is the direction things are heading. The mayor here recently rejected demands from cultural groups asking to take over La Ocho, a notorious prison that had been decommissioned.
Mexican Army officials, during a tour of this week’s elaborate tunnel, mostly focused on the triumph of the discovery.
“These are achievements that increase public security,” said Gen. Gilberto Landeros, standing at the tunnel entrance as local reporters took snapshots of one another in front of the long, dim hole. “We’re pounding at the economy of narcotrafficking.”
At the very least, he had a lot of marijuana to point to. Hefty bricks of the stuff, wrapped tightly in orange and green plastic, surrounded him when he announced the discovery of the tunnel inside the empty warehouse here in Tijuana. The total haul, from both sides and a truck driven from the site in San Diego, was 32.4 tons, with a street value of about $65 million — a new record for a tunnel-related seizure, according to American officials.
Harder to see, unmentioned, but easy to imagine: how many tons moved across before that load was found.
The evidence around the tunnel — worn-out soccer cleats, dusty oscillating fans, empty water bottles — suggested that the operation had been going for months, a supposition Mexican officials did not deny. At that rate, hundreds of tons of marijuana worth hundreds of millions of dollars would have moved through this one tunnel during its life span.
Most likely somewhere nearby, in another tunnel, the flow continues. The next announcement and news tour may be only weeks away.