NOGALES, Ariz. — Federal authorities shut down a 481-foot illicit drug tunnel in Nogales late Monday night, the longest such tunnel ever discovered in the border city, following a multi-agency investigation by the Nogales Tunnel Task Force.
The task force, which is led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), also arrested three men and seized more than 640 pounds of marijuana and a half pound of heroin during the takedown.
Jose Solorzano-Flores, 41, and Jose Mario Armenta-Valdez, 41, both of Mexico, and Jesus Alberto Ramirez-Valencia, 22, of Nogales, Ariz., were charged with drug conspiracy charges in a federal complaint. The men made their initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Tucson Tuesday afternoon.
The tunnel runs between two private residences in Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Accessed by shafts at each end, the tunnel stretches 411 feet from the U.S entrance to the international border and extends for another 70 feet into Mexico. The passageway is roughly 2 feet wide by 3 feet tall, and contains wood shoring, electric lighting and fans to circulate air inside.
"This drug trafficking organization clearly invested significant time and resources into constructing a tunnel of this size, in an attempt to move both marijuana and hard drugs onto the streets of the United States," said Eric Balliet, assistant special agent in charge of HSI Nogales. "Through hard work, dedication and close cooperation, the Nogales Tunnel Task Force and our partner agencies shut this tunnel down in its early stages of operation, hitting the traffickers' bottom line before they could recoup their investment."
The tunnel was discovered after task force members developed information that drug smuggling activity was occurring at a private residence in Nogales. While conducting surveillance on the house Monday night, task force members observed a vehicle, driven by Ramirez-Valencia, leave the residence. After following the vehicle to a second house, task force members and Nogales police approached Ramirez-Valencia, who consented to having the vehicle searched. Inside the truck, authorities found 24 bales of marijuana weighing 590 pounds. They also encountered Solorzano-Flores outside the house.
Later that night, the HSI Special Response Team served a federal search warrant on the first house and discovered Armenta-Valdez inside. Authorities subsequently found the tunnel entrance on the lower level of the house. A half pound of heroin was found inside the house and two bundles of marijuana weighing 46 pounds were found inside the tunnel.
"This was one of the more complex and exhausting tunnels to investigate in recent Nogales tunnel history," said Kevin Hecht, deputy patrol agent in charge of Nogales Station Border Patrol. "The investigation would not have been completed without the cooperation of DEA, HSI, Nogales Border Patrol and Mexican authorities."
The Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST) is an HSI-led, multi-agency U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiative to identify, disrupt and dismantle criminal organizations that seek to exploit vulnerabilities along U.S. borders. There are currently 34 BEST units deployed across the country, covering major seaports and southern and northern border regions. BEST units are composed of more than 750 law enforcement officers from more than 100 federal, state, local, tribal, and foreign law enforcement and intelligence resources.
BEST Nogales Tunnel Task Force is composed of full time members from HSI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Border Patrol, Nogales Police Department, the Santa Cruz County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. BEST Nogales Tunnel Task Force is responsible for identifying, investigating and eliminating illicit subterranean tunnels in one of the nation's busiest border areas with Mexico and combating the Transnational Criminal Organizations that finance, build and use them.