Sunday, November 28, 2010

Second Rail-Equipped Drug Tunnel Found at Mexican Border

New York Times
November 26, 2010
by Rebecca Cathcart

LOS ANGELES — Federal investigators discovered a sophisticated cross-border tunnel Thursday in an industrial part of San Diego. The half-mile tunnel was the second found this month equipped with rail tracks and carts to funnel drugs to and from Tijuana, Mexico.

After getting a tip about drug activity at a warehouse in Otay Mesa, a thicket of warehouses and truck repair shops that hugs the Mexican border, agents with the San Diego Tunnel Task Force arrested three men there and discovered the tunnel. United States and Mexican authorities have seized more than 20 tons of marijuana since Thursday.

Mexican military investigators later detained five men in Tijuana and uncovered an entrance to the tunnel beneath the kitchen floor of a house.

Mike Unzueta, who oversees investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego, said there were two entrances on the United States side, both in warehouses in the Otay Mesa area. Investigators believe the tunnel was operated by the Sinaloa cartel, one of the five largest drug cartels operating in Mexico. “This is fairly sophisticated construction,” Mr. Unzueta said. “There is a lighting system throughout, a ventilation system.”

The walls were reinforced with wood and cinder blocks, and had electrical outlets to charge jackhammers used to cut a path 60 to 90 feet underground.

On Nov. 2, federal agents found about 32 tons of marijuana and another tunnel less than a block from this one. The earlier tunnel had similar construction and connected two warehouses on either side of the border.

The authorities have found more than 75 tunnels along the border in the last four years. Most are rudimentary dirt passages, closer to the surface. Border Patrol agents discover many of the smaller tunnels when the ground beneath their vehicles caves in as they drive the dirt stretches along the border in California, Arizona and Texas, Mr. Unzueta said.

Otay Mesa, he said, has stronger ground, full of clay and decomposing granite. “You could just about build a tunnel without any reinforcement and it will stay,” he said.

The area is a target of the cartels because of its ready commercial infrastructure.

“There are literally semi trucks and warehouses everywhere you look,” Mr. Unzueta said, “and all the businesses that support that: gas stations, truck service centers. It’s an infrastructure that exists on both sides of the border.”

Border war a muse for South Texas art

San Antonio Express-News
November 25, 2010
by Lynn Brezosky

BROWNSVILLE — Time has etched history into the bricks of 409 East 13th St. This pre-Civil War building a block from the Rio Grande has withstood the sieges, raids, blockade running, bootlegging and epic storms that have blown through this city at the tip of the Texas borderlands.
And now the façade has taken on a new incarnation as a gallery, workshop and meeting place for artists who are inspired by the ongoing Mexican drug war. Those artists have found a muse in the rattling gunfire and smoke plumes from across the border in Matamoros, in the whispered accounts of neighborhood teenagers believed dead after spurts of drug soldier glory, and in the images of destruction and bloodshed flashing on their computer screens.

“We're in a political situation. I've got a war going on right across the river,” said Mark Clark, who after a career interspersing social activism with gigs in tony East Coast art museums found himself “retiring” in 2005 to a region that has become one of the battlegrounds of the drug trade.

Galeria 409 opens

Clark poured the proceeds from the sale of a house near the U.S. Capitol — a house that once had been a drug den — into the building that formerly was so dilapidated that officials thought it should be bulldozed. Galeria 409 became a showcase for bicultural border art, a venue for indie music and an art school for locals.

Artists from around the world found Clark as they embarked on projects on immigration, such as Susan Harbage Page's images of personal effects abandoned on the river banks.

The border fence was for many the cause to fight, or at least document. Among them was French photographer Maurice Sherif, who journeyed from San Diego to Brownsville for a photo essay dubbed “The American Wall.”

In February, Clark and other artists joined in “Art Against the Wall,” a protest that used the wall as a staging place for artwork protesting it. He found himself at the epicenter of a region battling the dictates of Washington, D.C.

“I've been in a million demonstrations, and when I came down here to find myself in a demonstration with the president of the local university and the mayor, and they're on my side ... it was truly uplifting,” he said, recalling one of many protests.

But the wall went up in its patchwork of styles, and the heady if ineffective activism against it now seems like ancient times.

Bag lunch on the riverbanks, not long ago a place to take in the detritus of migration or talk about the wall's symbolism, now has an eerie quality. Mexican military helicopters circle overhead, loud, low and obvious. What had been a flood of human migration is barely a trickle, victim to the sputtering U.S. economy. Anyone with a police scanner can hear the chatter of the smugglers.

The ground floor of the gallery remains a showplace for artists from both sides of the border. But upstairs, which requires a walk up an outdoor spiral staircase, is something new and raw.

It's Clark's workspace, and much of the work is his, reflecting an evolution through periods of trompe l'oeil photorealism, anamorphic painting, still life, portraiture, marine life abstracts, and political compositions ranging from flaming Buddhas from the Vietnam War era to border themes with a dangerous political bent.

Skeletal imagery

There's the giant, Hieronymus Bosch-inspired painting that he calls “Montezuma's Revenge.”

It's a depiction of “every gringo's worst fears,” he said. The scene, laced with skeletal imagery, Aztec iconography and blazing Mexican colors, jabs hard at the cultural divide.

Among the details: a helmeted head flies off a Dallas Cowboy, the body lifted high by a masked Mexican wrestler; a surly Ronald McDonald sellshelados (ice cream) from a push-cart; indigenous Mexican women wash clothes in a blond woman's swimming pool.

Another, “Greetings from Brownsville, Texas,” takes the American pinup approach to a voluptuous Latina inner-tubing down the center of the Rio Grande. Cartoon-figured Border Patrol agents wave and peer through binoculars at her, oblivious to the illegal immigrants climbing the riverbanks and wall behind them.

Still another takes the form of the pre-Columbian Codex Borgia to a street battle between Mexican military and drug cartels. There are boxy, pastel-colored buildings with rigid, vacant-eyed figures in hieroglyphic stiffness, be them the shooters or the victims, the child assassin or his line of blank-eyed severed heads. The bullet holes are large and donut-round, the blood spatters neat red blotches, and the whole effect is dull and lifeless, down to the dog, the bird, and the red-and-blue rooster.

His who's who of characters at a game table pulls no punches. There's the former sheriff now serving 26 years for corruption, a former county judge blamed for trying to sell local South Padre Island beach access, a navigation district official linked to $21 million in missing international bridge funds, a flip-flopping city councilman and, in a corner seat, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, holding a fence picket. Each plays his own game. A former bishop who pulled the plug on a television show critical of the Catholic Church oversees.

Irreverent touch

The light, irreverent touch is necessary, Clark and others say.

“It's all kind of a little kitschy or tongue-in-cheek or using a little bit of hyperbolic humor to sedate it,” said David Freeman, who has been drawing from graphic photos in Mexican newspapers for a current project using piñatas and other street items. “I think it has to do with not trying to have your audience shut down too much.”

Jesus De La Rosa, who teaches art at Texas A&M-Kingsville, found himself pulled from a series of abstract works to black-and- white prints focusing on drug war terror.

“I just see the prints as the only way to express, to do something about, what's truly going on on the border," he said. “It's like 30,000-plus people have died and nothing's really happening. Nothing's being done. It's all being kept hush-hush. The cartels and military, they've all quieted the media down. The people, we have no voice.”

Old masters

Then there's Rigoberto Gonzalez, whose recent exhibit, “Baroque on the Border,” goes in another direction, painting contemporary scenes in the style of old European masters, his way of ranking the drug war among the darkest periods in history. He said his 10-by-20 foot “Balacera en Matamoros,” or “Shootout in Matamoros,” was the first of his works that made people cry.

It took eight months of drawings and getting people to pose, and while inspired by a 2009 shootout in Reynosa, the title became interchangeable.

He's since found himself fighting with curators who balk at some of the more violent pieces.

“It's still Texas. It's very conservative,” he said. “For some reason people think that art should only be about pretty things. But art is supposed to engage you.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

El Paso named safest US city

El Paso Times
November 22, 2010
by Daniel Borunda

Despite being located across the border from one of the deadliest cities in the world, El Paso is the safest large city in the United States, according to rankings released Sunday.

Though the city has been ranked in the top three each year since 1997, this is the first time El Paso has taken the top spot for having the lowest crime rate among cities of more than 500,000 population in the annual rankings by CQ Press, a publishing firm based in Washington, D.C.

Government leaders, law enforcement officials and residents were thrilled with the new ranking.

"This isn't something that mystically or magically appeared," Police Department spokesman Darrel Petry said.

"This is something we have been striving for for the past 13 years. We truly attribute it to our relationship to the community - the trust."
The ranking was compiled with data from 2009 in the crime categories of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and auto theft. Detroit was ranked as having the highest crime rate.

El Paso Mayor John Cook said the new rank counters out-of-town misconceptions that El Paso is dangerous because of the drug cartel warfare that has engulfed neighboring Juárez for nearly three years.

National media often label the bloodshed in Mexico as "border violence."

Last year, there were more than 2,640 murders in Juárez, compared with 13 homicides in El Paso. This year, there have been more than 2,700 killings in Juárez and four homicides in El Paso.

El Paso government and business leaders often face concerns about safety while trying to lure industry, visitors and events to the Sun City.

"When we are in the midst of trying to convince people we are a safe city with all the violence in Juárez, it is extremely helpful," Cook said about the ranking. "... It's cool to be number one."

City crime rankings are not without controversy. The FBI, whose statistics are used to compile the list, has warned that such rankings do not take into account factors that shape crime, such as population density, youth demographics, climate and family cohesiveness.

Criminologists cite other factors, including studies that show cities with a high number of Hispanic immigrants tend to have low crime rates.

One theory by an Ohio State University researcher argues that murder rates are linked to trust in government and a sense of belonging. When trust fails, people settle their own scores violently.

CQ Press said many factors may influence crime but that does not mean that crime rates cannot be compared.

El Paso police officials were thrilled by the safest city ranking.

"This success could not have been accomplished without the hard work and dedication of each and every El Paso Police Department employee, sworn and civilian that work each day to make El Paso the safest place in the United States," Police Chief Greg Allen said in a statement.

Police also credit specialized units, including anti-gang teams that help stop the cycle of gang violence.

Allen said the fight against crime would not be successful without the assistance from other law enforcement agencies and residents.

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said there are nearly 5,000 federal law enforcement officers in the El Paso area, including a large number of Border Patrol agents.

"Many people don't realize the large presence of federal officers we have," Reyes said in a statement. "But there are many federal agencies with significant resources here that share information and coordinate with our police and sheriff's officers on a daily basis."

Tina Gianes, president of the Neighborhood Watch Association of El Paso, said that crime is kept at bay by neighbors willing to get involved, report suspicious activity and work with police.

"It just goes to show we have a really good Police Department and a lot of citizens who take their neighborhoods seriously and watch out for each other," she said.

For 14 years, retiree Bill Medrano has lived in the middle-class Castner Heights area of the Northeast that is an example of that neighborhood-police partnership.

"I feel pretty safe in my community," Medrano said. "We have our neighborhood meetings. The police interact with us quite a bit. We know them on a first-name basis. We even have a bike patrol. They speak to students in our school."

Petry, the police spokesman, said it is possible El Paso can retain the number one ranking next year. Overall crime is down 1 percent this year compared to 2009.

Daniel Borunda may be reached at; 546-6102.

Lowest crime rate*

1. El Paso.

2. Honolulu.

3. New York.

4. San Jose, Calif.

5. San Diego.

Highest crime rate*

1. Detroit.

2. Baltimore.

3. Memphis, Tenn.

4. Washington.

5. Atlanta.
Source: CQ Press City Crime Rankings 2010-2011.

*Cities with more than 500,000 population

Friday, November 12, 2010

CBP to launch $41M in local works

By Jonathan Clark
Nogales International
November 12, 2010

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is set to break ground on five infrastructure projects in Nogales during the next six months. The ambitious plan calls for simultaneously upgrading downtown pedestrian crossings, securing drainage tunnels, building nearly seven miles of new roads, and replacing the city’s landing-mat border fence.

CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, who announced the projects during a community meeting Thursday at City Hall, called the construction plans “proof of progress” toward securing the border.

“Building a strong infrastructure, together with the dedication of agents, together with the technology, together with the delivery of consequences to those who violate our laws, is the best way for us to secure this border,” Bersin said.

According to CBP Chief of Staff Marco Lopez, the five projects carry a combined price tag of $41 million, and all are scheduled to be completed by September 2011. One of the jobs, a reconfiguration of the Morley border gate to improve pedestrian flows, will be finished by Nov. 29, he said.

CBP will also reconfigure the pedestrian walkway at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, beginning before the end of the year. The renovation will be finished “in early 2011,” Lopez said.

However, the renovations at Morley and DeConcini do not include a SENTRI pedestrian lane, which would allow pre-approved, low-risk travelers to enter the United States through a fast-moving, dedicated line.

Guadalupe Ramirez, CBP’s port director in Nogales, said his agency needs to determine how to modify and adapt SENTRI equipment before it can be applied to local pedestrian lanes.

“We haven’t started on the implementation, but we are extremely serious about it,” Ramirez said. “It’s got to happen.”

Fencing and drainage fixes

The 2.9 miles of landing mat fence constructed though downtown Nogales in the early 1990s has since then become an albatross for Border Patrol agents and local leaders alike. The Border Patrol complains that it’s simple to cut through and easy for criminals to hide behind, while merchants and other residents call it an eyesore.

Now it will be replaced by 18-foot-high bollard fencing, a series of interconnected, concrete-filled steel tubes that allow visibility from one side to the other, Lopez said.

CBP also plans to team with military engineers to build 6.8 miles of new border road to the west of downtown. The roadway will provide Border Patrol agents with better access, and local residents with better security, Bersin said.

The final piece of the five-part puzzle is a project to upgrade the grates in the city’s sewer tunnels, “to see to it that the drainage system of Nogales serves the purposes of waste treatment and not of smuggling,” Bersin said.

Engineers will arrive in town in the next two weeks to begin planning the larger projects, Lopez said. At the same time, CBP will hold community meetings to solicit input from local leaders and residents.

“It will have an impact on your downtown, it will have an impact on all activities that are taking place,” Lopez said, noting the aggressive timeline of the effort and the fact that five projects will be underway at once. “But we are committed to working with you to try to minimize it as soon as possible.”

City Manager Shane Dille said city and CBP officials would have to work in close coordination to minimize disruption to local life.

“Obviously were going to be working hand-in-hand with them to make sure that coordination happens,” he said.

Dille also expressed enthusiasm for the economic impact of the projects – as did Mayor-elect Arturo Garino.

“With government projects, you’re looking at a good-sized chunk of money that comes into the community,” said Garino, who noted that hotels, restaurants and equipment rental firms all stand to benefit.

“I do wish that we can get a percentage of the workforce from Nogales residents,” he added. “It will be a good stimulus opportunity for Nogales.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

CBP announces five new border infrastructure projects in Nogales

Nogales International
November 11, 2010

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is set to break ground on five infrastructure projects in Nogales during the next six months. The ambitious plan calls for simultaneously upgrading downtown pedestrian crossings, building nearly seven miles of new access roads, and replacing the city’s landing-mat border fence.

CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, who announced the projects during a community meeting Thursday at City Hall, called the construction plans “proof of progress” toward securing the border.

“Building a strong infrastructure, together with the dedication of agents, together with the technology, together with the delivery of consequences to those who violate our laws, is the best way for us to secure this border,” Bersin said.

According to CBP Chief of Staff Marco Lopez, the five projects carry a combined price tag of $41 million, and all are scheduled to be completed by September 2011.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Nogales underground: drug tunnel capital of U.S.

November 4, 2010
By Som Lisaius

NOGALES, AZ (KOLD) - The DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales is almost always busy.

Bottle-necked vehicles moving north and south, not to mention lines of pedestrian traffic receiving the same kind of scrutiny from federal agents holding semi-automatic rifles.

"So much attention is paid to what's going on above ground," says New York Times writer Marc Lacey, on assignment in Nogales, researching the area's underground passageways. "People crossing, there's all this. There's a fence being built."

Perhaps this is why more smugglers are increasingly going underground. And in this case, directly below the DeConcini Port of Entry.

Agent Kevin Hecht is a tunnel specialist with the United States Border Patrol in Nogales.

"In this particular area they were deep enough," Agent Hecht says, pointing the port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border. "And with all the traffic disguising the noise, they were able to crawl through and dig and design the tunnel."

This tunnel was recently identified thanks to a tour bus that made the lane give way, exposing the illicit passageway.

As bold as it may seem, drug tunnels beneath the port of entry aren't that uncommon.

At least four holes patched with cement represent other failed attempts at the port of entry. Before this tunnel could be filled similarly, we decided to take a closer look.

"We are literally going inside the tunnel," I say, taking my photographer Andrew Brown into the hole with me. "It's about as primitive as you can get. If I were to get down on my hands and knees I'd probably be able to crawl my way through this space. But as you can see, it's only a few feet wide, a few feet deep."

But that's all it takes to get from one country to the next.

Over the last four years at least 51 unauthorized tunnels have been identified between Nogales, Ariz. and Nogales, Sonora--making it the drug tunnel capital of the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Tijuana is known for its tunnels," Lacey says. "But no other place has as many as Nogales--and I'm here checking that out."

In many cases, the tunnels are only 20 to 30 feet long, connecting Mexico with an underground drainage system in the U.S.

That same drainage system runs parallel with the DeConcini Port Entry. It creates quite a mess, every time a new tunnel is located.

"We only have so many lanes here at DeConcini to process traffic," says Craig Hope, assistant port director at DeConcini. "This lane in particular is used by buses. And as you can see, we had to shut the lane down and it's been closed since."

Back below the surface, I try to wrap my mind around the measures being taken by so many people, for so many years.

"It doesn't get much more claustrophobic , it doesn't get much more daunting," I say, looking into the camera. "But again this is a real-life depiction of what these people are willing to go through to get their product and themselves into the United States."

The tunnels are often carved with primitive hand tools--a process that can take months, even years to complete.

Once identified, the tunnels are filled with cement in just a matter of minutes.

In this case, another tunnel threat avoided. Even though the next would be identified literally that same day.

"Just a stunning thing to see how desperate people are," says Lacey, visibly pleased with what he's witnessing. "How good the business is. That they're using any means necessary to get across."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

U.S. Uncovers Major Cross-Border Drug Tunnel

National Public Radio
November 4, 2010
by Amy Isackson

U.S. and Mexican authorities confiscated approximately 30 tons of marijuana on Wednesday. It is the largest seizure ever along the San Diego border, and one of the largest in the U.S.

Law enforcement officials made the discovery after a semi truck leaving a warehouse in Otay Mesa, Calif., caught the attention of authorities, who followed the truck 80 miles north to a border checkpoint.

"In that tractor trailer was 10 tons of marijuana," said John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A man and his wife inside the truck were arrested.

When authorities went back to the warehouse, located 300 yards from the Mexican border fence, they found an additional 20 tons of marijuana along with a large rectangular hole leading to an underground tunnel.

"Some of these packages were out in the open and just laying on the floor here," said ICE special agent Joe Garcia. "You have to be on your hands and knees to get in [the tunnel]. There's ventilation, a little bit of a primitive rail system in there and there's some lighting."