Eighteen feet underground, the air is humid, warm, and thick. I’m on my hands and knees inside a drug-smuggling tunnel between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, that’s three feet in diameter, with barely enough room to turn around.
There isn’t a dose of CBD oil massive enough to make the place feel remotely comfortable; by comparison, the back middle seat on a full United commuter plane seems as spacious as center field.
But for U.S. Border Patrol agent Lance LeNoir, this is normal—this is the office. LeNoir, a 50-year-old son of a cop from backwoods Oklahoma, heads up the five-man Confined Space Entry Team, San Diego Sector, which is tasked with finding, mapping, and “remediating”—or closing off and destroying—drug-smuggling tunnels throughout Southern California. The team, in existence since 2010, is colloquially known as the Tunnel Rats—an homage to the U.S. forces who flushed out Vietcong tunnel complexes during the Vietnam War.
LeNoir creeps through the tunnel ahead of me, wearing hard-knuckle gloves and tactical pants with pads that protect his knees, one of which was reconstructed in three surgeries. He wears a helmet with a communications system onboard; on his back is a rucksack filled with tools; at his side is a 40-caliber Heckler & Koch P2000 service revolver. He stops to explain that his team has investigated so many of these tunnels that they’ve started to recognize the narco-trafficking construction teams who built them, from clues like nailing patterns, the types of wood used to shore up the walls, even the severity of their keystone arch.
LeNoir chews some sort of lime-flavored, minty gum, and a mojito-scented cloud follows him as we continue to crawl along. His language is sharp and sardonic, and his diction rolls downhill; as he speaks, you can tell that his mind is already a couple of sentences ahead.
We move slowly—perhaps he’s testing out how much I can take—and every few feet, he stops to riff on some tunneling concept or point out some feature. While describing the differences between the four types of cross-border tunnels, he takes umbrage that the particular one we’re in—discovered in 2016, secured, and now used for training—would be classified as “sophisticated.” It’s a misleading term, he says. “In reality, they’re anything but sophisticated,” LeNoir says. “They’re crude, hastily built, and inherently unsafe—due to physical conditions, atmospheric conditions, electrical conditions, water conditions, even geological conditions. I mean, there’s no structural engineer giving their blessing to this thing.”
I am sweating through my shirt, trying to use as much of my mental bandwidth as I can to hang on LeNoir’s every word, in order to keep fast-forwarding through moves I’d need to make to back out of here—and to keep from estimating how many minutes and seconds I am from the surface, should I need to tap out.
Perhaps LeNoir senses this; he comes in with some gallows humor.
“Can you smell it?” he asks. “Each tunnel has its own note.” A pause. “It’s like learning to drink wine. You learn to appreciate the nuances…. Most of them have earthy tones—a little oaky, sometimes, actually…. Granite has more of a piquant, a kind of mustiness, because it traps water…. Then there are the tunnels that have more of a bum feeling because they’ve been heavily used.”
We crawl on.
“Hey,” he says. “Make sure you get the word piquant in your story.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TUNNELING: As the Border Patrol concentrated its efforts to stop a huge number of illegal crossings in the late ’80s and early ’90s, cartels sought alternate means to move people and product into the U.S. Traffickers increasingly ventured by boat into the Pacific Ocean, backpacked drugs across remote mountains and deserts, and took to the air to shuttle product via ultralight planes (and, more recently, drones). And thanks to the Sinaloa cartel’s notorious leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, they went underground.
The first tunnel was found in 1990, between a warehouse in Douglas, Arizona, and a house in Agua Prieta, Mexico, less than 300 feet away; its entrance was concealed under a hydraulically lifted pool table, controlled via an outdoor spigot. Since then, more than 200 tunnels have been found—from “gopher holes” burrowed six feet under a border fence to “interconnecting” tunnels, which use the sewer systems between the two countries. (You enter a manhole on the south side, pop up on the north.) Then there are so-called sophisticated tunnels, such as the one we’re in—which, like the Sinaloa original, can take months or even years to build, and make back their sizable cost in a single shipment. Some are more impressive than others.
“We’ve seen armor-plated steel doors, elevators in vertical shafts, electrical carts with repurposed motors from pallet stackers, multilevel tunnels 3,000 feet long,” LeNoir says. “We’ve seen them as deep as 90 feet. Ninety feet! When you’re looking down, it could be 900.” Though El Chapo was recaptured—presumably for the last time—in 2016, the Sinaloa cartel continues to burrow down. “Cut off the head of the snake, and two come back,” LeNoir tells me. “There’s just too much money to be made.”
AT SOME POINT, 18 FEET DOWN AND maybe 75 feet in, laterally—maybe more, maybe less, it’s hard to know—my lizard brain kicks in. My body simply refuses to crawl any farther into the dark. LeNoir expects this. “That’s the normal response,” he says. LeNoir continues onward a short bit with our photographer; I backtrack about halfway to the entrance, where a faint bit of light from the vertical entrance lends some comfort. That’s where one of LeNoir’s comrades, Orlando Chavis, has been bringing up the rear. We sit sideways across the tunnel and talk.
Chavis, 45, an Air Force vet from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, did a tour in Iraq before getting into federal law enforcement. Three years ago, bone cancer claimed part of his finger; a week after the amputation, he was back underground. “Normally when we enter a tunnel, this is what it is,” he says. “No lights, no visibility. We just have headlamps, and before we start mapping, we’re pulling out the dope, looking for environmental hazards, checking for atmospherics—bodies if there’s anybody in there.”
Underneath us is a pair of metal rails; it looks like the same stuff used to make a basic bed frame. Chavis explains that as teams of tunnel builders work farther into the ground, at up to 10 feet a day, they lay down a rudimentary rail system, using iron laid atop two-by-12 lumber. Bagged-up dirt is then rolled up the rails on homemade carts. Once a tunnel is completed, traffickers use the rail system to send drugs in the opposite direction.
Most tunnels are dug with consumer-grade tools—the same corded rotary hammer drills you can buy for $800 at Home Depot. The builders install power lines to run the drills and sometimes rig up basic lighting. By some accounts, the men holding the drills are forced laborers, held in warehouses on the Mexican side, and moved before they complete a job, so they never know a tunnel’s exact location.
Most sophisticated tunnels have some type of makeshift ventilation, using PVC pipe, duct tape, and—this is suitably macabre—blower fans repurposed from bounce castles seen at kids’ birthday parties. Collapses rarely kill tunnel builders—bad air does. So the most important device in a Tunnel Rat’s tool kit is a handheld, always-on gas monitor, which monitors O2 levels, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide. The farther into the tunnel you go, the worse the air gets.
Historically, tunnels chiefly have been used to move marijuana. Weed is bulky, stinky, and more difficult to hide in the floorboards of a van than hard narcotics, so it makes sense to push bales of it through tunnels. But with marijuana’s legalization in California, seizures have dropped—in the San Diego district, the amount of weed captured by the Border Patrol fell 58 percent in 2017; nationwide seizures dropped by a similar amount in 2018. Weed is just not worth as much money as it once was. So increasingly, the cartels are pushing the hard stuff through, including the synthetic opiate fentanyl. In 2018 in Arizona, a briefcase containing three kilos of the stuff—enough to kill more than half a million people—was captured after being sent through a tunnel that terminated in an abandoned KFC restaurant a couple of hundred feet from the border.
Chavis explains that sophisticated tunnels are only seldom used to traffic humans, for a simple reason: Drugs don’t talk, and people do. “The more people you run through, the more snitches you’ll have,” he says. The locations of a tunnel’s entry and exit points are valuable secrets; the fewer people who know them, the less likely that information could be used to tip off the authorities.
The tunnel we’re in, unnamed and in an undisclosed location, is kind of an outlier. It was discovered by the Mexican government in December 2016 but was incomplete, with no exit on the U.S. side. But in the months while the tunnel was eventually mapped and then filled with concrete, a locally based transnational criminal organization took advantage of lax security on the Mexican side, entered the unfinished tunnel, burrowed upward, and used it to send undocumented aliens through. In August 2017, a group of Chinese nationals was found wandering the streets of Otay Mesa at 2 in the morning. They had emerged from the very tunnel that Tunnel Rats now use for training.
Though we’re deep underground, you can hear the traffic of Otay Mesa overhead. Cartels tunnel in the area because the ash and bentonite clay is pliable but maintains its structure, and the water table is low. But just as vital to a tunnel’s success is the ability to conceal it; the Otay Mesa warehouse district overhead offers the perfect cacophony. Even at 9 on a sunny Friday morning, you feel like you’re in the first scene of an action movie broadcast late at night on USA Network. Hundreds of unmarked import and export businesses house product in warehouses that look pretty much the same, and are moving cargo in and out, legally, through the nearby port of entry, via truck traffic, all the time. Everything looks sketchy.
Since ground-penetrating radar has proved unsuccessful at locating tunnels in the mixed soil of Otay Mesa, finding them requires shoe-leather detective work. Border community liaisons go business to business, asking warehouse owners for intel on anything unusual—“sketchy” in SoCal copspeak—such as deliveries happening at off-hours, people acting suspiciously. While some exits have been discovered in warehouses on the U.S. side, thanks to intel gained from these door-to-door efforts, most tunnels are discovered by Mexican authorities after tips from locals in Garita de Otay, across the fence. For most of a tunnel’s life span, it has only one entrance, after all, on the Mexican side, and the displaced dirt has to come out of it.
BY NOW, OUR PHOTOGRAPHER HAS crawled back, followed by LeNoir, explaining the unique nature of the gig. “We may come off as cowboys and risk-takers and all that other stuff in there,” he says, “but we don’t have death wishes. Is this an adventure? Do we like what we do? Abso-freaking-lutely! We do. Of course we do. We’re not crazy. Well, we might be a little crazy, but that’s—Orlando, let me see that air monitor.”
LeNoir fiddles with the device, then hands it over.
I ask LeNoir if he’s chewing the gum as some kind of ritual, to keep calm. Nah, he says. Doesn’t have a ritual, carries no totems. “I find it to be pretty peaceful down here, actually,” he says. “Silent. You know, when I’m running point, getting a trajectory, economizing movement, making sure the path forward is clear and that everyone is safe, it can be very serene.”
It’s hot, and we all need water. I check my recorder and am surprised to see that we’ve been underground for nearly an hour. We head up the ladder.
The sunlight is a relief. LeNoir, Chavis, and our photographer climb up the ladder and back to the surface, out of the manhole entrance, surrounded by sagebrush.
“It’s kind of like…a hole!” LeNoir shouts at the Border Patrol agents waiting up top, feigning that this is his first trip.
“That right there is typical Lance,” says another agent, Rudy Nava, holding back a laugh. Nava is wearing a long-sleeve Tunnel Rat tee with the text “Non gratum anus rodentum”—not worth a rat’s ass. He’s been keeping watch over the entrance with team member Justin Kourt; a fifth teammate, Jeremy Wilkins, isn’t on duty today.
We walk across the road to a new section of secondary border fence, completed just a few weeks ago, and sit on its concrete base. Shadows from its 30-foot-high steel beams fall across the road, where an endless procession of 18-wheelers inch their cargo toward the port of entry.
Over the clatter of shifting truck transmissions, I ask if the agents ever fear retaliatory action from the cartels—after all, every tunnel they kill costs someone a lot of money. “The thought is there,” says Chavis. “When you’re out with your family, you’re always…aware of your surroundings. It just comes with the job.” The agents point out that vengeance by crime syndicates toward Border Patrol agents is extremely rare. After all, a calm and quiet border is good for business.
Our conversation turns to a new tunnel found a few days ago just across the fence, in the Garita de Otay. News of its discovery by police on the Mexico side hit just the previous afternoon. I ask if it came as a surprise. LeNoir sighs. “Nothing is surprising,” he says. “To be honest, tunnels are such a perfect conduit for pushing whatever, illicitly, to the north side. It’s pure stealth, and since they can do it in volume, that’s the key. They don’t have to piecemeal it through the ports, and they don’t have to put 50-pound rucks on mules in the backwoods somewhere. They get tonnage through in a relatively short amount of time.”
And how, I ask, will President Trump’s border wall—or even just more of the fence towering over us—affect the Tunnel Rats’ work?
“We’re government employees,” LeNoir says. “There’s a tunnel down there; it’s our job to get rid of it. It’s literally that simple. What happens with this fence—there’s people who get paid to deal with that stuff, put the political spin on it, and it ain’t me.”
He pauses for a moment. “As long as there’s a demand over here and a willingness to try to smuggle something from point A to point B in secret, we’ll be here,” he says. “We got to do it.”
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