The hole in the tile of the abandoned Kentucky Fried Chicken was only eight inches in diameter.
“It was barely large enough to fit a 15-piece family bucket of chicken,” said San Luis Police Officer Duane Williams.
It could have easily been overlooked as just another deteriorating aspect of an dilapidated fast-food restaurant, had local police not known better.
After all, this wasn’t just any vacant KFC but one in San Luis, Arizona, situated some 200 yards north of the border the United States shares with Mexico.
“From the old drive-through lane, you can see the fence separating San Luis from Mexico in your rear-view mirror,” said Williams.
Back on August 13th, local police had arrested the building’s owner, Ivan Lopez, during a routine traffic stop.
Public records reveal that Lopez had bought the former KFC in April, paying some $390,000 in cash for the rundown restaurant.
Soon after Lopez’s arrest, Immigration and Customs Enforcement obtained a search warrant and surrounded the building.
Once inside, the seasoned officers were shocked at what they found.
“This was no fried chicken joint any more,” said Williams. “This was the big time.”
The Hole Was Just the Beginning
The agents suspicions were confirmed with the discovery of an eight-inch opening along a wall in the restaurant’s rear kitchen area.
“You could have easily missed it, if you didn’t know what you were looking for,” said Officer Williams. “The whole building was in disarray. There were lots of holes.”
Agents chipped away at its sides and, as the concrete gave way, the hole became larger and larger.
One person shimmied down into the space and turned on a flashlight, scanning the surroundings.
Hundreds of wooden two-by-four boards lined the walls…
The Secret Tunnel Was an Underground Drug Highway
The discovery prompted the inevitable comparisons to Breaking Bad and Los Pollos Hermanos.
Countless news stories relayed the tunnel’s dimensions: three feet wide, five feet tall, and about 600 feet long.
The local news constantly repeated the sensational figure that “more than $1 million worth of cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanyl and heroin” had been found the day before on Lopez.
“We’re the largest border city in Arizona with almost 38,000 people and growing very rapidly,” said Richard Jessup, San Luis Police Chief.
But the tunnel affirmed another unspoken rule on America’s southwest border.
“What can’t go up, must go down,” said Jessup. “Or rather, what can’t go over the wall can and will go under it.”
This wasn’t the first tunnel, and it certainly wasn’t the most sophisticated one to be discovered along the border…
But This Wasn’t the First Tunnel in San Luis
The KFC tunnel was simply the latest passaged to be uncovered in an ongoing game of drug-trafficking whack-a-mole that has literally gone underground.
“Unusual? Yes. But surprising? No,” said San Luis Police Chief Richard Jessup.
Another tunnel had been found in the city in 2012, also close to the former KFC.
Jessup was quick to note that there is already a border wall that spans far beyond San Luis city limits, comprised of not one, but two twenty-foot-tall fences.
“It’s very difficult in our area to get over that wall. You either are going to take a drone and fly it over or you are going to try to tunnel underneath it,” Jessup said.
But just how successful are the drug traffickers’ efforts?
You might be surprised…
The Drug Cartels Are Getting More Sophisticated
There have been 203 tunnels discovered in the US Border Patrol’s history.
“This was the fifth tunnel to be discovered in that region since 2007,” said Border Patrol spokesman Jose Garibay III.
Most are rudimentary, hand-dug tunnels that are essentially “dangerous, unfinished passages.”
In rare instances, however, agents will come upon a “sophisticated tunnel,” with power lines, ventilation systems, and concrete flooring.
“Generally along the southwest border, every couple of months, we’re encountering a tunnel,” said ICE Special Agent Scott Brown. “Tunnels are something we’re constantly on the lookout for.”
Brown believes the farthest a tunnel has made it across the US border is about 2,000 feet.
Tunnels can be difficult to detect without sophisticated equipment or tips from concerned citizens.
However, there are a couple of dead giveaways.
And according to Brown, one is a surprising no-brainer…
The Authorities Know What to Look For
“One thing is a big pile of dirt,” Brown said. “Again, this is a 5-foot-by-3-foot-wide hole that’s about 590-feet-long. A rough estimate is about 200 tons of dirt they had to get out of there and move surreptitiously.”
And it’s actually fairly common for an unwitting resident on either side of the border to report suspicious noises to law enforcement.
“We’ve had instances where people have come in and said, ‘Hey, I’m sitting in my house at night, and I hear this constant scratch-scratch-scratching, and I can’t figure out what it is,’” Brown said. “Well, again, you tell that to an HSI or Border Patrol agent, they’re going to guess somebody’s digging underneath your house or in close proximity to your house.”
But it’s not just drugs that are coming through the clandestine underground shafts.
Sadly, there’s a whole lot more going on…
Unfortunately, It’s Not Just Drugs Coming Through…
Although this particular tunnel appears to have been limited to the drug trade, owing to the tiny opening on the US side, that’s not always the case.
“All too often, we see human beings smuggled through these tunnels,” said Brown.
On the Mexico side, the tunnel’s entrance was hidden beneath a trapdoor under a bed in a residential home.
More alarming than the existence of the tunnel was what passed through it.
“Generally with tunnels what we’ve seen is marijuana,” added Brown. “This was a purely hard narcotics tunnel. Everything that we seized was hard narcotics. So I think that’s what makes this tunnel a little unique and frankly a little more scary than some of the other ones we’ve seen.”
Do you believe in a zero-tolerance drug enforcement policy?