Drug-smuggling tunnel found under ex-KFC
The hole in the tile of the former Kentucky Fried Chicken was small: 8 inches in diameter, barely large enough to fit a 15-piece family bucket. It could have easily been overlooked as just another deteriorating aspect of an abandoned fast-food restaurant, had authorities not known better.
After all, this wasn’t just any vacant KFC, but one in San Luis, Ariz., situated some
200 yards north of the U.S.Mexico border. A person going through the old drivethrough window might have caught glimpses of the
20-foot-tall border fence separating San Luis from Mexico in his rearview mirror.
Moreover, on Aug. 13, local police had arrested the building’s owner, Ivan Lopez, at a traffic stop where he was found with more than 325 pounds of illicit drugs. Records revealed Lopez had purchased the former KFC in April, paying $390,000 — all cash — for the abandoned restaurant. Soon, authorities from Immigration and Customs Enforcement obtained a search warrant and surrounded the building.
Once inside, they knew just where to look: Down at the ground. This was no fried chicken joint anymore.
Their suspicions were confirmed with the discovery of the 8-inch opening, along a wall in the former restaurant’s rear kitchen area. Agents chipped away at its sides and, as the concrete gave way, the hole became a shaft. One person shimmied down and turned on a flashlight, scanning the surroundings. Hundreds of wooden two-by-four planks lined the walls, shoring up a veritable walkway that led due south.
It was an underground tunnel to Mexico.
The discovery demanded inevitable comparisons to A drug-smuggling tunnel was discovered near the border underneath a former KFC restaurant in San Luis, Ariz.
“Breaking Bad” and Los Pollos Hermanos. Countless news stories relayed the tunnel’s dimensions — 3 feet wide, 5 feet tall, about 600 feet long — as well as the mind-boggling amount of hard drugs that had been found on Lopez, more than $1 million worth of cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanyl and heroin.
But the tunnel affirmed
another unspoken rule on America’s Southwest border: What can’t go up must go down. Or rather, what can’t go over the wall can and will go under it.
This was hardly the first tunnel, and it certainly wasn’t the most sophisticated one, multiple officials said. It was simply the latest, in an ongoing game of drug-trafficking whack-a-mole that has literally moved underground.
“Unusual? Yes. But surprising? No,” said San Luis Police Chief Richard Jessup, when asked about the presence of these tunnels, a stone’s throw away from a bustling, official port of entry. “I mean, we’re the largest border city in Arizona with almost 38,000 people and growing very rapidly,”
Another tunnel had been found in the city in 2012, also close to the former KFC. Jessup pointed out there was already a border wall that spanned far beyond San Luis city limits, comprised of not just one, but two 20-foot-tall fences. One ran along the actual border and another ran parallel to the first, about 50 yards north. Border Patrol agents patrolled the dirt path in between the two fences. “It’s very difficult in our area to get over that wall,” Jessup said. “Of course, if you can’t go over the wall, you go under the wall.”
And so people have. There have been 203 tunnels discovered in the U.S. Border Patrol’s history, and this was the fifth one to be discovered in that region since 2007, said Border Patrol spokesman Jose Garibay. “Generally along the southwest border, every couple of months, we’re encountering a tunnel,” said Scott Brown, special agent in charge for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations.
Most are rudimentary, hand-dug tunnels that are unfinished, Brown said. In rare instances, however, agents will come upon a “sophisticated tunnel,” with everything from power lines to ventilation systems to concrete flooring.
Tunnels can be difficult to detect without sophisticated equipment or intelligence. But there are also some dead giveaways. “One thing is a big pile of dirt,” Brown said. Other times an unwitting resident on either side of the border will report suspicious activity to law enforcement.