Smuggling Goes Underground

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Times Staff Writer

Jose Mendoza came to this sun-baked border city to work at a used-car lot for his friend Raul “El Chino” Zepeda. When he arrived, he found the yard littered with junked automobiles and the inside of the office splattered with mud.

Zepeda was not selling cars; he was spending his time in a hole behind the office, working with two other men to dig a tunnel to California, authorities allege.

According to Mexican court records and attorneys, Zepeda had a message for his friend: Keep quiet and work, or you will die.


Working 10 hours a day as Mendoza stood lookout, Zepeda and his helpers dug through the floor of a windowless room behind the office, 15 feet down a shaft, then north toward Calexico, Calif., prosecutors allege.

Advancing one to two feet a day, working in shorts and boots in the desert heat, the men labored undetected for four months, under the border road, beyond the border fence, on toward a safe house that Zepeda had bought on the U.S. side.

They had nearly made it when a water crew in Calexico accidentally dug into the passage and alerted U.S. authorities.

Today, Mendoza, Zepeda and two other men are in an overcrowded Mexicali jail, accused of tunneling, a pico y a palo -- by pick and shovel -- 700 feet from the El Pelon car shop to a neighborhood of pastel homes in Calexico.

The dig was among a surge in tunnel discoveries since border security tightened after the 2001 terrorist attacks. In the last three years, authorities have unearthed 13 subterranean incursions into the United States, most of them along the border between San Diego and Calexico. By comparison, 15 were found in the 12-year period before the attacks.

The latest tunnel was found Friday in San Ysidro when a U.S. Border Patrol bus sank into a shallow passage near a parking lot by the border. The 15-foot-long, unfinished tunnel had been started in a garbage-strewn lot in Tijuana. Its opening was covered by an old mattress. The tunnel stretched 10 feet into the United States.


U.S. authorities worry that tunnels -- used primarily to smuggle drugs -- also could pass weapons or terrorists. Tunnels typically are found through tips from informants or by chance, as with Zepeda’s alleged work in September or another tunnel found in Calexico when its earth ceiling collapsed as a Border Patrol agent drove over it, just like what happened Friday in San Ysdiro.

After the discovery of the Calexico tunnels, which were a few blocks from each other, federal authorities sank sensors into the earth, marking the first attempt to use sophisticated mining technology to detect the work of manual laborers driven underground by greed or fear.

Neither Zepeda, the short and burly alleged ringleader of the Calexico tunnel crew; nor Mendoza, 55; nor their alleged accomplices, Joaquin Lazaro, Mendoza’s 25-year-old former taco helper from Oaxaca, Mexico, and Guillermo “El Loco” Liera, 43, a car mechanic from Mexicali; had any experience tunneling.

The men say they helped build the tunnel under orders from drug traffickers. Mexican authorities believe that they were out for profit, and have charged them with conspiracy and racketeering.

What the men lacked in experience, they made up for with determination and grit, said a Mexican law enforcement official who recently displayed the tunnel opening to a reporter.

The official flashed a light down the 15-foot deep shaft, revealing a plastic bucket floating in the partially flooded hole. Strewn nearby was a mud-encrusted boot and a foot-long pickax.


The tunnel, preserved as a piece of evidence, followed a zigzag route dimly illuminated by a string of lightbulbs. Some of the dark recesses were passable only by crawling, and were so narrow that only one man could swing a pick at a time, officials said.

“The first thing you feel is the heat. Then claustrophobia sets in. You start sweating. You feel like you can’t move,” the official said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity -- many police officers, investigators and prosecutors have been killed in recent years by drug traffickers -- the official said he had conducted only a limited inspection of the tunnel. “I have a family,” he said, explaining that the risk of collapse was too great.

Along the border, the feats of the tunnel builders fascinate Mexican and U.S. law enforcement authorities.

Tunnels under the border have stretched as long as four football fields, and have turned up under lift-up staircases, fireplaces and storm drains. They start and end in nondescript houses, businesses or farms tucked among thousands of other buildings along the border.

Some are equipped with sophisticated ventilation and lighting systems. Cart and rail networks are sometimes used to carry dirt and drugs. In 2002, tunnel builders dug under a parking lot used by federal customs agents in Arizona. Last year, Tijuana smugglers popped up from a storm drain in a parking lot in San Ysidro, a few feet from the busiest border crossing in the world.


“It was extremely clever. A feat of engineering,” said Misha Piastro, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego, standing over the storm drain used as the tunnel exit.

The Tijuana passage was unearthed about the same time as Zepeda and his crew were allegedly hard at work in Mexicali, 120 miles east.

Zepeda, a small-time drug smuggler who had served time in an American jail, claimed in his initial statements to Mexican police that he had been forced to dig the tunnel to pay drug traffickers who had accused him of stealing some of their cocaine.

Zepeda said the traffickers beat him so severely that he offered them a deal. “He decided to change his life to build the tunnel, even though he had never done so before,” reads the account in Zepeda’s declaration.

He has since recanted his initial account, saying through his attorney that it was obtained through torture. Zepeda now denies any knowledge of a tunnel. But some of his initial claims are supported by the three men he allegedly hired to help in the venture.

All three had hit hard times when Zepeda allegedly approached them with job offers. Mendoza and Lazaro had been eking out a living selling tacos in Colonia Mariano Matamoros, a sprawling shantytown in the eastern foothills of Tijuana.


Liera, a forklift operator, had been laid off from work at a maquiladora plant in Mexicali. When he wasn’t fixing neighbors’ cars in his frontyard, he would go fishing with his daughter on the All-American Canal down the block.

The men said they were promised $200 to $300 a week to sell and fix used cars. But authorities say the men knew what Zepeda was really up to.

He had rented an auto yard under a McDonald’s sign on traffic-clogged Avenida Cristobal Colon, across the street from the fenced border with Calexico.

He reportedly told Mendoza, who suffers from heart problems, to attend to occasional customers. Meanwhile, in the windowless room behind the office, the digging began.

To soften the dirt and keep the dust down, the tunnelers watered the walls with a hose. To shore up the ceiling, they installed wooden beams. They also laid a wooden floor so they could pull dirt-laden carts out of the tunnel.

The deeper into Calexico they went, the more fearful they became of being buried alive, said Mexican authorities. The fears were well-founded, experts said.


“It’s a dangerous activity -- what they were doing,” said Nicholas Crawford, director of the Center for Caves and Karst Studies at Western Kentucky University.

Another challenge, experts say, was determining directions underground. The men did not appear to have used compasses or laser equipment that could have kept them on a straight path.

Zepeda said he intended to come up in a house he had purchased on 2nd Street. But the tunnel veered at several points as it inched under the border road, which is patrolled by border agents.

At one point, the tunnel seemed headed toward the peach-colored home owned by Margarita Madera.

“It’s so scary thinking that a terrorist or drugs can come right under the house,” Madera said.

Through the four months of digging, officials say, Mendoza watched for trouble. Liera allegedly used his 1968 truck to haul the dirt to a landfill and buy supplies.


Who actually dug the tunnel is unclear. Mexican authorities believe Lazaro and Liera worked with Zepeda, but the men deny it. When the Calexico water crew discovered the work Sept. 12, Mexican police found Mendoza and Lazaro sleeping in the office just outside the tunnel opening, authorities said. Zepeda and Liera were arrested later when they showed up for work.

The men insist that they are not superhuman tunnel rats.

Liera’s family members say he was hired merely to haul dirt from the site to a landfill, and was too much of a miedoso -- scaredy cat -- to work in a dark and claustrophobic tunnel.

“He’s the type that sleeps with the lights on,” said Liera’s wife, Martha, interviewed in her small home in Mexicali. “There’s no way he went in that hole.”

Zepeda’s family was unavailable for comment.

In the end, being discovered might have saved the men’s lives, officials say. “When they finished, they would have been killed,” said one Mexican law enforcement source.

“It’s the law of the drug traffickers: They don’t leave witnesses.”