The Tunnel

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Back in the 1980s, Keoki Skinner was a reporter with a newspaper called “The Arizona Republic”. He covered the drug trade and the border, and he spent a lot of time in different parts of Mexico, but he was getting tired of traveling and of being a stranger in every place he went. He wanted to actually settle down in Mexico and to make a life.

Keoki Skinner:
That’s when I thought about, well, I’d like to be part of a community in Mexico. If I lived here and knew what was going on here, I could probably file some pretty good stories.

Roman Mars:
So Keoki moved to Agua Prieta, a town right on the border, where he’d done some reporting before. Agua Prieta sits just across the line from Douglas, Arizona. The two cities are contiguous – one urban area that spans the border, divided by a towering rust-colored metal wall, a steep concrete ditch, a line of concertina wire, and a mesh fence.

Delaney Hall:
And Keoki did what he’d set out to do. He settled down and made a life there.

Roman Mars:
That’s our own Delaney Hall.

Delaney Hall:
He built a house, married a Mexican woman, continued mastering the slangy Spanish of Northern Mexico, and ended up having five kids. Agua Prieta became his home.

Keoki Skinner:
And the thing I liked about Agua Prieta, it wasn’t tourism-oriented at all. It was a very Mexican community, and I was very intrigued by the town for that reason.

Roman Mars:
Keoki ended up scaling back his full-time reporting job so he could open a smoothie shop and juice bar. What better way to get to know this city than to have a business here, where people will come in and hang out and talk? He could listen and observe and probably pick up a few good ideas for the occasional freelance story that came his way. He named his smoothie shop “El Mitote”.

Keoki Skinner:
Which in Spanish, it means like a gossip spot, or there’s a ruckus going on. For example, the sirens going down the street. Everybody kind of runs out to see where the cop cars are going, and that’s like, “Well, where’s the mitote? What’s going on?” It’s a hubbub-type thing.

Delaney Hall:
Keoki picked the name, because on occasion he’d been accused of being a mitotero, meaning a nosy person, someone who pries. He wasn’t working as a full-time journalist anymore, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a reporter at heart. He loved collecting bits and pieces of information and asking questions, figuring out what was really going on.

Keoki Skinner:
And so that’s how I got the name for my business, and it stuck. It stuck. In fact, to this day, how many years later, I’ll run into people like at a gas station, and they’ll see me and they’ll yell at me in Spanish, “eh huera mitotero,” which means “hey, blonde gossiper.” (laughs) They don’t know my name, but they know I had the Mitote.

Delaney Hall:
It’s kind of perfect, though, because it’s also where you first started to see evidence of this big conspiracy that was going on.

Keoki Skinner:
Yeah. There were things going on there that it wasn’t hard to start picking up stuff.

Roman Mars:
So that would eventually lead Keoki to one of the biggest and strangest stories he’d ever cover.

Newscaster:
In other news today, something that one customs agent called something out of James Bond.

Roman Mars:
The story involved the cocaine trade.

Reporter:
Only last week, another 600 pounds of cocaine were found concealed in a truck.

Roman Mars:
El Chapo Guzman.

Reporter:
He has been the most wanted man in Mexico. Marijuana, cocaine, meth, heroin, and murder are all part of his business.

Roman Mars:
And an incredible feat of engineering and architecture that would change the drug trade forever.

Delaney Hall:
It was 1989 when Keoki first started noticing some new customers in the juice shop. It was guys he hadn’t really seen before. They had a certain swagger and attitude, and he says they often had bodyguards with them.

Roman Mars:
Which is not typical for an outing to the juice shop.

Delaney Hall:
Keoki described them as Sinaloa Cowboy types. So when you say these Sinaloa Cowboys would come in, what did they look like? What did they act like?

Keoki Skinner:
Real high-end cowboy boots, the Levis, the leather vests, the white hats that they wear. Pickup trucks with Sinaloa plates. They all feel like they were kind of above the law. They’d double park out in front of my place, and they didn’t give a damn. Everybody just kind of stayed away from them, because they knew what was going on, that these guys were in town for some “something”.

Roman Mars:
Back in the late ’80s, the Sinaloa Cartel wasn’t quite the sprawling dominant criminal organization it’s become today, but it was headed in that direction. The cartel controlled a lot of the drug trafficking corridor that ran through the Mexican States of Sinaloa and Sonora, then across the border into Arizona and on to big distribution points like Phoenix and Los Angeles. Agua Prieta fell right along that corridor.

Delaney Hall:
Keoki suspected that these guys in his juice shop, buying their smoothies with $100 bills, were part of the cartel.

Roman Mars:
He began observing them, cautiously from a distance. But he also wasn’t above marketing to their sensibilities.

Keoki Skinner:
And the big thing we hyped with them was, we had drinks that we called AR-15. They loved that one. And then we had an alfalfa drink. We hyped it as being real good for hangovers, so they would come in and drink fresh alfalfa mixed with pineapple or whatever. They bought into my advertising schemes, and that’s what they would have.

Delaney Hall:
This, Keoki says, is one of the rules of border towns. Even if the theory of trickle-down economics doesn’t really hold up in other places, it kind of works here.

Keoki Skinner:
When you’re dealing with border towns and drug trafficking, trickle-down economics is a valid idea, because in Mexico, these guys don’t hoard the money. It gets spent.

Delaney Hall:
On stuff like big houses and fancy cars, not to mention bribes to local cops and politicians, and businesses where the narcos launder their money. In general, Keoki says, drug traffickers tend to be pretty flashy.

Roman Mars:
But there was one new guy that stood apart from the Sinaloa Cowboys with their leather vests and high-end boots. This guy dressed more like a businessman. His name was Francisco Rafael Camarena Macias, and one day he offered Keoki his business card and told him a little about what he was doing in town.

Keoki Skinner:
Camarena claimed to be a lawyer out of Guadalajara The story that I got from him when he came into my juice bar at one time was that he was a contractor, and he was going to build houses in Agua Prieta.

Delaney Hall:
Camarena also told Keoki that he was pursuing some business opportunities just across the border, in Agua Prieta’s sister city – Douglas, Arizona.

Keoki Skinner:
And at that point, I didn’t know what the score was. I thought he was pretty legit.

Delaney Hall:
It wasn’t yet clear to Keoki that Camarena was also in the drug trade, and it would take almost a year for that to become apparent to the entire City of Douglas as well. And by then Camarena had already turned the little town upside down.

Roman Mars:
Douglas is small. About 14,000 people lived here back in 1989 when Camarena first showed up. It doesn’t have a whole lot of attractions.

Delaney Hall:
One of the main ones is the Gadsden Hotel, which was first built back in the early 1900s when the area was more of a magnet for cattlemen, ranchers, and mining tycoons. It has a grand marble lobby and these gorgeous Tiffany-style stained glass windows. They depict the surrounding Sonoran Desert, with its saguaro cactus, ocotillo, and creosote bushes.

Roman Mars:
Today that desert landscape is heavily surveilled. A network of towers equipped with cameras and sensors watch the southern border and all of Douglas pretty much 24 hours a day. Border patrol trucks with tinted windows cruise the streets.

Gary James:
“There’s so much history here, because this all started with Mr. Douglas… Are you already tape-recording me?”

Delaney Hall:
“Yeah, is that okay?” (laughter)

Delaney Hall:
On the north side of town, there’s a shop called Douglas Diesel. It’s a big brick warehouse with peeling stucco, filled with truck parts. And it’s owned by this guy, Gary James.

Gary James:
“Maybe we better just start all over.”

Delaney Hall:
“Well, first of all, what’s your name and when were you born?”

Gary James:
“My name is Gary James. I was born 1/31/51.”

Roman Mars:
Gary grew up in Douglas and has lived here almost all his life. He helps fix and service the semis and trucks that pass through the port of entry, hauling clothes, electronics, window blinds, and car parts manufactured in Mexico. About 145,000 personal vehicles and more than 2,000 trucks cross the border every month.

Gary James:
So a lot of my business is from Mexico. In fact, I would say probably 80% of my business is from south of the border.

Delaney Hall:
And Gary says that when your customers are people who work in the cross-border trucking business, a certain number of them will have ties to smuggling.

Gary James:
When you have a foreign country that butts up to the United States, and the drug problem that we have in America, you’re going to have these kind of transactions all the time. In all kinds of businesses. And so many a times, I know people coming into my shop may not be legit 100%, but it’s still a business. I’m legit, so I sell them the parts.

Roman Mars:
But when Gary first met Rafael Camarena out at a local bar, he says he didn’t suspect that Camarena was involved in any smuggling.

Gary James:
I remember him being dressed very well, was very professional, never looked like he ever got excited or upset, and never said anything that would make you question who he was. (“Excuse me.” Answers call. “Doug’s Diesel.”)

Delaney Hall:
Camarena was outgoing and social, and he became friendly with some of Douglas’s most prominent citizens. That included the chief of police and the local justice of the peace, who owned a lot of land. Camarena actually bought a plot of that land near an industrial part of the border, and he also bought the local business that sat on it. The business was called Douglas Redi-Mix, and it sold sand, gravel, and concrete for construction projects. Camarena hired Gary to help service his trucks.

Gary James:
And so I was seeing Mr. Camarena at least on a weekly basis.

Roman Mars:
At least to Gary, Camarena’s business appeared to be aboveboard.

Gary James:
The Douglas Redi-Mix was actually bidding on federal contracts, city contracts, state contracts, for all kinds of materials that are needed in road building, bridge building. And so it looked like a very, very legit business. I mean, he was employing people, and so we were all happy, because at that point in time, there wasn’t much industry in Douglas, Arizona.

Delaney Hall:
“So it’s really right downtown.”

Keoki Skinner:
“Not far. Real close to where all the DEA and Customs people were stationed. It was right under their nose, pretty much.”

Delaney Hall:
Keoki Skinner is giving me the Douglas tour in his 1973 VW Bug, which has a flapping canvas roof and a bumper sticker on the back that says, “Make America Mexico Again,” with a map showing the U.S. territory that used to be part of our southern neighbor.

Keoki Skinner:
“Okay, this is this warehouse right here. Right now the city has been using it to store some of their buses and their vans that run around Douglas.”

Delaney Hall:
In front of us is a beige warehouse surrounded by a chain-link fence. Camarena constructed this building for his Redi-Mix business back in the late ’80s. He stored his trucks and equipment and material here. The border fence is about a hundred paces away. Mexico is right there. And through the fence, just over the line, we can see another property that used to be Camarena’s. It’s a ranch-style home in a wealthy neighborhood of Agua Prieta. Camarena built the house on a vacant lot, which he reportedly bought for $90,000 cash.

Keoki Skinner:
It was a little bit over and above market price, to say the least.

Delaney Hall:
It raised some eyebrows. This guy was throwing around a lot of money.

Roman Mars:
And then there was the enormous hole behind the home. Camarena told his neighbors it was going to be a swimming pool.

Keoki Skinner:
But as time went on, they realized it was starting to fill up with dirt again, and so one day all of a sudden the neighbor told me, “You know that big hole that was behind that house? Well, it’s all filled in.”

Delaney Hall:
No pool had materialized, even though there was a lot of construction activity at the house, with trucks going in and out and hauling dirt. And at this point, because Douglas and Agua Prieta are both relatively small towns and everyone knows everyone else, rumors were beginning to circulate. Mitotes, as Keoki would call them.

Roman Mars:
People were saying that Camarena wasn’t just building a warehouse on the U.S. side and a nice residential home on the Mexico side. He was building some kind of tunnel between them. That dirt that slowly refilled the swimming pool hole, apparently it had been dug out of a passageway that ran under the border.

Delaney Hall:
U.S. Customs officials in Douglas and then in Phoenix eventually received a number of tips from informants. They learned that Camarena was using the passageway to smuggle drugs from his home in Agua Prieta across the border to his warehouse in Douglas. But before law enforcement could go into the warehouse to search for the tunnel, they needed to establish that the smuggling was actually happening, so they staked out Camarena’s warehouse.

TV Host:
Camarena’s business was located one block away from the U.S. Customs headquarters.

Delaney Hall:
This was later chronicled in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. It was very dramatic.

Customs Agent:
Early 1990, we initiated 24-hour surveillance of the Douglas Redi-Mix Company. I think we’ve got something.

TV Host:
“Agents staked out Camarena’s business for over two months.”

Customs Agent:
Yeah, it’s Camarena all right.

Delaney Hall:
Law enforcement eventually followed a flatbed truck that they’d seen leaving Camarena’s warehouse, and they trailed it to a property outside of Phoenix, where they conducted a raid.

TV Host:
“… raided a farm where Camarena’s truck had been seen.”

Customs Agent:
“U.S. Customs with a search warrant.”

TV Host:
“Agents seized over a ton of nearly pure cocaine.”

Customs Agent:
“Here it is.”

TV Host:
“Street value over $100 million.”

Delaney Hall:
The cocaine had been transported inside a hidden compartment beneath the truck’s bed.

TV Host:
“The raid confirmed that the drugs had come from Camarena’s warehouse.”

Roman Mars:
In May of 1990, law enforcement raided Camarena’s warehouse in Douglas and his home in Agua Prieta. They’d heard there was a tunnel, but they didn’t really know exactly what it would be like.

Terry Kirkpatrick:
The first reaction was like okay, a tunnel. Is it going to be some little bitty hole like a gopher hole that these guys are crawling through?

Delaney Hall:
This is Terry Kirkpatrick. He worked with the U.S. Customs Service at the time, and he was there the night of the raids. First, agents entered the warehouse on the U.S. side.

Terry Kirkpatrick:
And in the middle of the floor was probably about a two-foot by two-foot grate. Well, that grate just happened to be the shaft leading down into the tunnel.

Delaney Hall:
Once they’d found the tunnel entrance in the Douglas warehouse, some of the agents headed over to Agua Prieta, where they were joined by the Mexican Federal Judicial Police. They discovered that Camarena and his family had already fled. His house was empty.

Terry Kirkpatrick:
No one was there, but there was no access to the tunnel. They couldn’t figure it out. We weren’t sure how to get into it either.

Delaney Hall:
The agents went into what looked like a recreation room with a pool table in it, and when they pulled away the carpet, they could see there was something unusual about the floor. It looked as if there was a separate concrete slab underneath the pool table, a kind of enormous trapdoor. The agents started looking around for some kind of button or lever that might open it, and someone also pulled out a jackhammer.

Terry Kirkpatrick:
And I just happened to be the one that took the jackhammer and started jackhammering the floor on top of where the pool table was. And as I’m standing there jackhammering, all of a sudden it moved and started to go up, and then it stopped. And so everybody kind of froze. We said, “Okay, who touched what?” Well, it just so happened that one of the policemen outside was trying to get a drink of water out of an outside water spigot, and when he turned that spigot, that’s what was a control lever that allowed the pool table to go up.

Delaney Hall:
The valve triggered the pool table to rise up to the ceiling on huge hydraulic lifts, like something in a mechanic’s garage, revealing a set of stairs underneath, which descended into the tunnel, the same one they’d found an entrance to on the Douglas side of the border. The tunnel was located about 30 feet underground. Once agents hit the bottom, there was a passageway.

Roman Mars:
About 270 feet long, four feet wide, and five feet high, just tall enough that a person could walk through slightly stooped, pushing a wheeled cart full of bundles of cocaine.

Delaney Hall:
The tunnel had concrete walls and a curved concrete roof. There was a ventilation system and rudimentary lighting. So this wasn’t just a gopher hole. This was clearly a sophisticated engineering project.

Terry Kirkpatrick:
Just the complexity to this whole tunnel was something that had been unseen before, unheard-of, and no one, I think, in the United States government, especially in law enforcement, realized anything like this ever existed.

Newscaster:
“Well, federal agents on patrol along the Mexico-Arizona border said today that they discovered a major drug-smuggling route where they had never looked before.”

Reporter:
“An estimated $2 million worth of construction discovered last night. Concrete, steel reinforcing bars, electric lights.”

Newscaster:
“… Arizona, five feet high, four feet wide, the length of a football field. Customs agents say …”

Delaney Hall:
The discovery of the tunnel was pretty much the biggest thing that had happened in Douglas. Everybody was paying attention.

Gary James:
I mean everybody. And we had congresspeople come out to Douglas, Arizona, and America’s Most Wanted, and Unsolved Mysteries. We just had a lot of activity here for at least the first year after the tunnel was discovered.

Keoki Skinner:
It was constant. It was just constant. I’d hear the helicopters – Black Hawks – landing all the time. “Well, who is it today?” “John McCain.” It was like Grand Central Station in that place.

Roman Mars:
Keoki started reporting in between shifts at the juice shop. Gary kept servicing semis, but was also hired by the federal government to help maintain and secure the warehouse site so law enforcement could come and go. The Customs Service undertook a massive investigation, and people started printing t-shirts and bumper stickers which said, “I saw the tunnel,” and selling them to all the visiting politicians and journalists.

Delaney Hall:
And everyone, government officials, reporters, law enforcement, ordinary citizens of Douglas, they were all asking the same questions. First, who provided the money to build this tunnel? It was estimated to have cost 1 to $2 million to create, so the project clearly had the financing of a much bigger operation.

Roman Mars:
And the other question was, who had the expertise? Someone with engineering know-how had been involved, someone who knew how to build a tunnel undetected that stretched the length of a football field and ran under the massive border fence and concrete drainage ditch that separated Mexico from the U.S.

Keoki Skinner:
So right away, everybody was talking like, who invested in this? Who is the kingpin of this operation? And of course, his name started coming up.

Delaney Hall:
The name was Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and eventually as the investigation progressed, someone else started coming up too, an architect.

Roman Mars:
The arrival of the architect, after this.

BREAK

Roman Mars:
Right now in New York, a massive trial is underway. Joaquin Guzman Loera, better known as “El Chapo”, is one of the most powerful drug kingpins ever to face prosecution.

Delaney Hall:
This trial is a huge deal for the U.S. government, which tried unsuccessfully for decades to capture El Chapo and hold him accountable. El Chapo escaped from Mexican prisons not once but twice, before finally being arrested again and extradited to the U.S.

Roman Mars:
Now when he’s being transported from the federal prison in Manhattan where he’s being held, to the courthouse in Brooklyn where his trial is happening, he’s locked in what basically sounds like a coffin.

Reporter:
“The drug lord is said to be locked inside a security capsule, which is fixed to the floor of an armored vehicle, protected inside by a team of officers with automatic weapons, and escorted in a commando-style convoy capable of repelling attack. In an effort to prevent an assault on the caravan and risk another Chapo escape, authorities are closing the Brooklyn Bridge while delivering him to court. That transportation part…”

Delaney Hall:
Early on in the trial, back in November, as prosecutors began to lay out the scope and scale of the Sinaloa Cartel’s operation, jurors were given a video tour of the Douglas tunnel, the one discovered back in 1990. The footage released to the public doesn’t have sound, but it shows agents walking stooped through the concrete passageway, and it shows the concrete slab below the pool table, floating up from the floor on its hydraulic lifts.

Roman Mars:
Under the leadership of El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel became known for their creative smuggling methods, especially their tunnels. The one in Douglas became a kind of prototype for many tunnels afterwards, and the person who oversaw its construction was a man named Felipe de Jesus Corona-Verbera.

Monte Reel:
The tunnels really started with a guy named Felipe de Jesus Corona-Verbera, who was an architect. He graduated from the University of Guadalajara in 1980 with an architectural degree. There’s not much known about his early life, beyond that fact.

Delaney Hall:
This is Monte Reel. He was the South America correspondent for the Washington Post, and he’s written about transporter tunnels for The New Yorker. He says that while Rafael Camarena may have been the frontman for the tunneling project, behind the scenes it was Corona-Verbera who provided technical expertise.

Roman Mars:
Corona-Verbera denies this. We’ll get into that a bit more later. But he was convicted of conspiracy and drug smuggling in his own federal trial in 2006, and a lot of what we know about him is based on testimony from that trial.

Monte Reel:
Stories that have been collected from contract workers who helped him with certain construction projects, and also from testimony from former cartel members.

Roman Mars:
Cartel members like Miguel Angel Martinez, who worked as a pilot and later as a lieutenant for El Chapo, before turning state’s witness and entering witness protection. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Martinez helped to manage El Chapo’s business. For a time he coordinated cocaine deliveries from Colombia to Agua Prieta. And when he testified against Corona-Verbera, he described him as being…

Monte Reel:
… the only guy that he ever knew within the Sinaloa Cartel who addressed Chapo with the pronoun “tú” instead of the more formal and deferential “usted”. So he was considered a guy who just was very close friends and very familiar with Guzman, but I’m not sure if anybody really has the story of how they met.

Roman Mars:
We may not know that story, but we do know, generally speaking, how some architects come to work for drug traffickers.

Ioan Grillo:
Basically, it’s like in any business community.

Roman Mars:
This is Ioan Grillo, a British journalist based in Mexico City. He’s covered the drug trade and the drug war for almost 20 years.

Ioan Grillo:
Like if you’re going to build a house, and you say you need an architect, you might ask around. Who knows a good architect? And it’s a marketplace. If you have somebody coming up and offering very good money, above what you might normally make, it can be an offer that’s hard to refuse.

Delaney Hall:
And because cartels are such extensive and elaborate operations, they need many kinds of sub-specialists. They end up hiring not just architects and engineers, but also accountants, lawyers, IT experts, and even musicians, who write ballads about the exaggerated exploits of certain narcos. Many of these people are employed for one-off jobs, like contractors.

Ioan Grillo:
So you have professional killers who are hired and paid a wage or paid for a hit. You have people who walk over the desert with a backpack full of drugs, and are paid normally per backpack they take over. And you have people who are paid to build tunnels, and so they’re paid for the job.

Delaney Hall:
According to Miguel Angel Martinez, the former cartel member, the architect Corona-Verbera worked on a number of building projects for El Chapo before embarking on the Douglas tunnel.

Ioan Grillo:
And his first projects were just kind of construction jobs within Mexico that weren’t related to tunnels. He had built a couple of residential homes for Guzman, and he had helped design a farm with a zoo, where Chapo kept some of his exotic pets. And then he designed a grocery store where the Sinaloa Cartel had some offices up in the top floor of it.

Roman Mars:
And all of these projects, whether a farm or a home or a grocery store, had a certain flair.

Ioan Grillo:
The one thing that all of those projects had in common was that they featured hiding places that were all accessed by these hydraulic systems. There’s a playfulness almost to the sort of systems that Corona-Verbera designed. He was very creative in kind of developing ways to access these secret passageways that somebody who walked into a house would never really guess.

Delaney Hall:
In 1988, Corona-Verbera moved from Guadalajara, Mexico to the Douglas-Agua Prieta area with his wife and three kids.

Roman Mars:
And in the federal trial, his defense team maintained that it was to work on legitimate projects. They argued that like a lot of people in the area, Corona-Verbera inadvertently got caught up doing business with people who had cartel connections, but that he didn’t actually design or build the tunnel. They brought in an expert to testify that the tunnel looked more like the work of a structural engineer and not an architect.

Delaney Hall:
The trial transcripts get very detailed and jargon-y, with references to things like control joints and curing compounds and inlet structures.

Roman Mars:
The defense says corruption in the area was rampant, and it was Corona-Verbera’s misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Delaney Hall:
And there is some evidence that there were other specialists involved with the tunnel. A senior customs agent told me that one of the informants who tipped him off to the tunnel was a Mexican engineer. The engineer claimed he’d been hired by the Sinaloa Cartel to research possible tunnel locations and to create tunnel designs, which were then handed off to Corona-Verbera. That detail is hard to fact-check, but it comes from a credible source.

Roman Mars:
Even after being convicted and serving more than a decade in federal prison, Corona-Verbera still denies being involved with the tunnel. His attorney told us that he also denies involvement in any previous Chapo Guzman projects. We asked Corona-Verbera for an interview, but through a friend he told us that he’s not willing to speak at this time.

Delaney Hall:
Despite pleading not guilty, Corona-Verbera was seen at key tunnel locations, including both the warehouse on the U.S. side and the residential home on the Agua Prieta side. A number of local contractors and workers reported interacting with him at those construction sites.

Ioan Grillo:
They described him as somebody that they would talk to all the time, who was always around. And it’s funny, a lot of people actually describe him in glowing terms.

Roman Mars:
For instance, there was a contractor who described seeing the plans that Corona-Verbera had for the warehouse.

Ioan Grillo:
And he kind of paused in his testimony, he said, “They were beautiful plans.” So they kind of respected this guy as an architect. He kind of had this air about him that people looked at him as somebody who knew what he was doing.

Delaney Hall:
But there were also a few signs that this wasn’t an ordinary construction project. For instance, the drains in the floor of the warehouse. One worker raised questions about their size and the fact that they didn’t appear to lead to a clear drainage system. This was because they were actually going to lead into the passageway that connected to the tunnel.

Ioan Grillo:
And one of the workers said, “These drains, there’s something not right with them. Where does the water go?” He was kind of questioning the design. And Corona-Verbera basically said, “Mind your own business. I’m in charge here.”

Roman Mars:
The Sinaloa Cartel had hand-picked the Agua Prieta-Douglas border as a tunnel site for a few reasons. For one thing, the cartel was already operating there. They had established networks and an established operation, and they’d already been moving drugs across the border aboveground, mostly in vans and trucks with hidden compartments.

Ioan Grillo:
And they were able to move about three tons per month across the border that way, but Guzman wanted more efficiency.

Delaney Hall:
And to understand why El Chapo Guzman wanted more efficiency, we need to take a little side trip to Miami.

Roman Mars:
Back in the early 1980s, most cocaine was coming into the US not from Mexico but from Colombia, and the Colombian cartels preferred smuggling drugs into the country on boats and small planes, through cities in South Florida, like Miami.

Reporter:
“Miami is the source that supplies two-thirds of America’s drug habit, and the …”

Delaney Hall:
The drug trade was helping to fuel a surge in crime, and so the Reagan administration started something called the South Florida Task Force to fight it.

Reporter:
“It looks like a war. Customs agents on assignment, ready for combat. High-speed Cobra helicopters from the Army, with marijuana leaves painted on the side, each leaf a successful drug bust.”

Delaney Hall:
Reagan’s goals for taskforce were very ambitious.

Ronald Reagan:
“Our goal is to break the power of the mob in America, and nothing short of it. We mean to end their profits, imprison their members, and cripple their organizations.”

Roman Mars:
But the reality is, the harder we make it for smugglers to get goods across the border, the more money ends up getting pumped into the system. Militarizing our border over many decades hasn’t ended illegal trafficking. It’s just helped professionalize it.

Ioan Grillo:
The more you crack down on it, the harder it gets.

Roman Mars:
Ioan Grillo again.

Ioan Grillo:
The harder it gets, the price goes up. The more the price goes up, the more money is made. The more money is made, the more criminals want to do it. So the criminals then adapt to it and are richer and more powerful organizations.

Delaney Hall:
And the Mexican cartels were about to get a lot richer and more powerful, thanks in part to Reagan’s strategy of increased enforcement in South Florida.

Roman Mars:
Because when the Colombian cartels saw that they were losing their product in drug busts in Miami, they just looked to a different border and new criminal collaborators.

Ioan Grillo:
So they turned to Mexico. There was agreement made where they would pay the Mexicans to take the cocaine from them. Mexico already had a big trafficking route into the United States. So all the Colombians have to do is bring it up to Mexico. The Mexicans could take it to the United States and deliver it to them at a price per kilo or per ton, whatever they’re negotiating.

Delaney Hall:
So suddenly a lot of the cocaine that had been traveling around or over Mexico was now traveling through it, and then across the southern border into the U.S., which meant a lot of new money pouring into the Mexican cartels. Border agents in Arizona, like Terry Kirkpatrick, could see the effects of this on the ground.

Terry Kirkpatrick:
When it hit, it was just like every car, instead of marijuana, had coke in it. Just like a thousand pounds at a time, 4,000 pounds. We got overrun so fast.

Roman Mars:
And as the U.S. continued to crack down on cartels in Colombia, it eventually opened up new opportunities for Mexican cartels to become more than just couriers. They’d eventually come to dominate the entire cocaine supply chain.

Ioan Grillo:
So the big cartels were taken out in Colombia. First, Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel were taken down, and the Mexican cartels grew and grew, particularly the Sinaloans.

Miguel Angel Vega:
I’m telling you, I was like only 12 or 13 years old back then, and my classmates and I, we were like, “Hey, I don’t want to be a superhero like most kids around the world. I want to be a drug traffickers, because they do have the money and they can do whatever they want.”

Delaney Hall:
This is Miguel Angel Vega. He grew up in Culiacán, Sinaloa, which by this time had been the epicenter of Mexico’s heroin and marijuana trade for decades. But with the rise of cocaine, Sinaloan drug traffickers were getting even more powerful, and Vega watched that happen as he was growing up. And some of his classmates became immersed in narcoculture.

Reporter:
“El Chapo was seen as a modern-day Robin Hood, helping churn the Sinaloan economy with drug money.”

Miguel Angel Vega:
And some of those classmates ended up being drug traffickers, and all I can tell you about that is, some of them are in prison or dead.

Reporter:
“Much of the blood is spilled here in Culiacán, the violent nerve center of…”

Roman Mars:
Instead of joining the narcos, Vega became an investigative journalist focused on organized crime. He’s chronicled the violence and chaos of the drug war, which has done so much over the years to destabilize the country, corrupt its institutions, and turn some of its most vulnerable people into asylum seekers.

Reporter:
“Violent scenes like these, bodies stuffed in garbage bags, police executed, and journalists assassinated, are directly connected to the wrath of the Sinaloa Cartel.”

Delaney Hall:
And Vega explains that a lot of this violence and chaos was seeded back in the late ’80s, not only because the cocaine trade was being rerouted through Mexico but also because the cartels were undergoing an internal reorganization.

Roman Mars:
A whole generation of older narcos was leaving the scene. They were getting arrested, they were dying, and a new generation was coming up. And they were dividing up the old territory, forging new alliances and rivalries.

Delaney Hall:
That generation included El Chapo Guzman, an enormously creative, brutal, and ambitious narco.

Miguel Angel Vega:
He was like eager for power – let’s just mold the whole world, let’s just conquer the entire world. And that’s like his ultimate goal.

Roman Mars:
And Chapo had some new ideas, like this tunnel in Douglas, which according to some estimates allowed the Sinaloa Cartel to triple the amount of cocaine they were moving across the border.

Delaney Hall:
“So do you think, what role did this tunnel play in Chapo kind of becoming Chapo?”

Keoki Skinner:
“I think it was a big role.”

Delaney Hall:
Here’s Keoki Skinner again, the journalist and juice shop owner from Agua Prieta.

Keoki Skinner:
I think it really launched him onto his career. The Colombians couldn’t believe how fast he got the cocaine to Los Angeles, and they kind of jokingly nicknamed him “Speedy”.

Delaney Hall:
In addition to helping El Chapo make his name, the tunnel created a new kind of notoriety for Douglas, Arizona, which had formerly been a sleepy border town. Suddenly it was synonymous with the biggest drug trafficking story of the early ’90s.

Roman Mars:
And there were a lot of questions about how a smuggling operation of that magnitude could have happened without at least a few local collaborators.

Keoki Skinner:
“Oh, well this one’s dated June 10th.”

Delaney Hall:
“Would you read just the first couple graphs of that?”

Keoki Skinner:
“”Sure. The specter of a man who called himself Francisco Rafael Camarena still stalks the homes of the wealthy and the influential here, who entertained him in lavish style. Okay, this is…”

Delaney Hall:
In the aftermath of the tunnel’s discovery, Keoki got to work. He wrote a series of articles for his old newspaper, the Arizona Republic, chronicling Rafael Camarena’s connections to various prominent people, not just in Mexico but in Douglas.

Keoki Skinner:
He was always out at the country club, and making the right connections, getting to know the right people here, before he got this tunnel underway.

Delaney Hall:
“I mean, it seems like there were a lot of implications in these articles about local officials profiting from this whole scheme. But did anybody in local government ever do any time for this or anything like that?”

Keoki Skinner:
“No. No, nobody on the Douglas side.”

Roman Mars:
There were also allegations about how agents from the Customs Service may have colluded in the tunnel scheme. And while, again, no one was ever charged, there was a lot of corruption going on within the agency around this time. Here’s Terry Kirkpatrick again.

Terry Kirkpatrick:
At that time, corruption was so rampant that the U.S. government started a blue ribbon campaign trying to stamp it out. And we were so busy trying to work the corruption end, trying to weed out own with these inspectors, because they were passing a thousand pounds in the trunk of a car right through the port of entry. It was just a lawless kind of area back in 1989.

Delaney Hall:
A senior agent in the Customs Service told me that the tunnel was probably in operation for at least six months, and he said that “everyone would have had to know about the passageway for it to be in regular use for that length of time.”

Roman Mars:
After the discovery of the tunnel, El Chapo Guzman came up with new ways of getting drugs across the border, packed in cans of jalapeno peppers or inside coils of insulated wire.

Delaney Hall:
Both Francisco Camarena and Felipe Corona-Verbera fled to Mexico, and it took a long time to get them back to the United States. Camarena was eventually extradited in 2001, and a couple years later he pled guilty for his role in the Douglas smuggling conspiracy. He received a sentence of 10 years in federal prison.

Roman Mars:
Corona-Verbera was extradited in 2003 and tried in 2006. He was released from federal prison in September 2018.

Delaney Hall:
But that wasn’t the end of the tunnels. The Douglas tunnel was like a prototype. Even though it was eventually discovered, it was so efficient and effective during the time it was in operation that it paid for itself many times over. It was a successful experiment that proved the viability of underground smuggling. And so…

Terry Kirkpatrick:
The tunnels after this one, they almost became a nightmare, and it was one tunnel after another tunnel after another tunnel.

Newscaster:
“The tunnel from San Diego to Tijuana they found is so sophisticated it’s being called a super tunnel.”

Ron Claiborne:
“The tunnel is over a quarter of a mile long and nearly 70 feet underground, part of it through solid limestone.”

Newscaster:
“There’s even a phone system. The phones still work.”

Ron Claiborne:
“Authorities say without specific information about where the tunnels are located, or just plain luck, they’re virtually impossible to find. Ron Claiborne, ABC News, on the US-Mexico border.”

Roman Mars:
Most tunnels show up along the Arizona and California borders, in places where the ground is soft enough for digging but not so soft it will cave in. Some of the tunnels are pretty rudimentary, but some, like the Douglas tunnel, are highly engineered and sophisticated projects, with elevators and rail cars. A tunnel discovered in Baja Mexico late last year included solar panels to power its ventilation and lighting systems.

Delaney Hall:
Most illegal drugs actually come into the country through legal ports of entry. That fact, and tunnels, are two reasons why Trump’s proposed border wall probably wouldn’t do much to stop drug trafficking. But the U.S. government still sees tunnels as enough of a problem that they’ve started tunnel task force groups along the border. The groups exist solely to monitor, investigate, and prevent tunneling. But tunnels are notoriously difficult to detect, and they keep showing up.

Delaney Hall:
When I was in Douglas, I tried to get into the old tunnel, which has been kept open for occasional training sessions by the Border Patrol. Keoki Skinner worked his connections and got us into the warehouse where the entrance is, but the tunnel is dank and unmaintained, and I was seven months pregnant at the time of the visit. A city worker took one look at me, probably imagined me trying to clamber down the rusty ladder in the dark, and then wouldn’t let us in after all. But if we couldn’t see the architecture of the drug tunnel, then at least we could see the architecture the drug trade has helped to build across the border.

Keoki Skinner:
“So you see, it was a pretty nice neighborhood.”

Delaney Hall:
Once again, we’re driving around in Keoki’s rattling little VW Bug. We’re exploring the part of town where Agua Prieta’s business people tend to live. It’s the neighborhood where Camarena’s ranch home with the hydraulic pool table still sits, although that’s now been converted into a community center. And Keoki points out a house on the corner. It’s a nice place with a wrought iron fence. The house is made of brick.

Keoki Skinner:
“This is clean money. This is cattle money. This guy’s been a cattle rancher for years.”

Delaney Hall:
Because Keoki has lived here for decades, he’s picked up a lot of information about how people make their money. As we go around the corner…

Keoki Skinner:
Look at this place up on the right. Look at the columns on that place.”

Delaney Hall:
“Wow. My goodness.”

Keoki Skinner:
“Typical drug money. Goes over the limit, doesn’t it?”

Delaney Hall:
The house takes up the entire block. It has enormous white Greco-Roman columns, and a chandelier dangles over its soaring entryway. Keoki says a local narco lives here. It’s one of many extravagant narco mansions in the area. Keoki now leads local tours of these places, bringing tourists and snowbirds from Arizona and other parts of the Southwest down to gawk.

Keoki Skinner:
“I say that I’m going to show you what bad habits in the United States has built for us down here. All this money from drug consumption in the United States, this is how it’s been spent down here, these houses.”

Delaney Hall:
And not just these houses. When you stop to think about everything that’s funded, directly or indirectly, by American drug consumption, it can make your mind spin. The money finds its way to the people who drive, trek, or fly the drugs across Mexico, to the hit men who battle over cartel territory, to the architects and engineers who build the tunnels for smuggling and the mansions for the kingpins, and to the bribes that pay off cops, politicians, and Border Patrol agents, so that they’ll turn their heads and look the other way as this vast and complex system grinds along.

Roman Mars:
And of course, the money also trickles down into the rest of the economy, to the grocery stores and the clothing shops and the gas stations, even to the local juice shop that sells the narcos their AR-15 smoothies.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by our Senior Editor, Delaney Hall, who finished this story just under the wire.

Delaney Hall:
I think that’s it. I also think I was like literally in labor when I tracked the last stuff, so if there’s anything that doesn’t work very well, let me know and I’ll do it again. Okay, bye.

Roman Mars:
You went above and beyond, D. Congratulations. Enjoy your much harder job for the next six months.

Credits

Production

Producer Delaney Hall spoke with Keoki Skinner, a freelance journalist; Gary James; Terry Kirkpatrick, former U.S. Customs Service agent; Monte Reel, former South America correspondent for the Washington Post; Ioan Grillo, a British journalist based in Mexico City; Miguel Angel Vega, an investigative journalist

Comments (1)

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  1. Ibrahim Khider

    I was a little let down with this episode because it neglected certain nuances on the so called ‘war on drugs’. My stomach turned when the show quoted policies by Ronald Reagan. You would think journalists like Gary Webb (who wrote The Dark Alliance series) and Charles Bowden did not exist. Bowden wrote the forward to The Dark Alliance compendium and also wrote Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields (2010), among other fine books on the war on drugs. Here is Bowden in his own words: https://youtu.be/4DIrvg8RuMA

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