Drug-smug­gling tun­nel found un­der ex-KFC

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By Amy B Wang The Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

U.S. CUS­TOMS AND BOR­DER PRO­TEC­TION

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