NOGALES, Arizona - Smugglers carrying drugs from Mexico to the United States trudge through damp, dark tunnels low in oxygen in order to cross the border. So the U.S. Border Patrol, tasked with countering the flow of drugs across those same routes, train under the same conditions.
A Univision News team gained exclusive access to one such training center in Nogales, Arizona.
The immigration agency set up a specialized tunnel team and build a 400-foot underground pipeline for training purposes. The training center is located at the Nogales, Arizona, Border Patrol Station and is the only such facility in the country.
The tunnels were built in a labyrinth form, featuring areas with smaller spaces and little ventilation. After training and passing a number of tests, agents earn a certificate that allows them to enter confined spaces.
"The Nogales tunnel team has developed over time into what they are today, a few years ago we heard stories about the tunnels where children were being brought in, where people were smuggled, and they were full of rats. It's not like that anymore," said Kevin Hecht, who runs the Nogales Border Patrol Station and the tunnel team.
The first cross-border tunnel was discovered inside a storage warehouse in Douglas, Arizona on May 11, 1990. In Nogales, the first tunnel was found in 1995. To date, 194 underground tunnels have been discovered across the country, 111 of them in Nogales. For that reason, the city is known as the country's "tunnel capital." Half of the officers assigned to the station are trained to enter confined spaces.
During daily patrols, officials enter an existing river drainage system - designed for water management during monsoon season - that connects Nogales, Arizona with Nogales, Sonora. A smaller group explores tunnels discovered on the Mexican side.
"When the team on the Mexican side finds something, they warn the team on the American side. Then they enter the tunnels. It's a unique team," added Border Patrol Hecht.
Hecht said he also has a group that works closely with Mexico, advising authorities about passages they've discovered.
The agents are trained in how to respond in case of tunnel collapse: they check air quality, safety and everything they need to know to enter confined spaces.
Hecht acknowledged his team's work has led to a significant reduction in activity in the tunnels: in recent months just two cross-border tunnels were found, one in Naco and one in Douglas, and both were out of use.
"We are always looking for them, we never lower our guard. We know that they are always developing new strategies to make a new one and we are looking for ways to intercept them," Hecht said.
The team consists of 50 agents, 11 of them in charge of binational relations.
Whenever a tunnel is discovered, the Border Patrol sends robots to determine whether it's safe to enter.
"Some robots can be very heavy, some are good for pipes, some are wireless. We want the robots to go in to find out if there are people inside, drugs, narcotics, guns or weapons," Hecht said.
Hecht explained that at times the tunnels are so small that they only fit narcotics, and are not big enough for a person to enter. In this area, agents often find marijuana. Occasionally they find heavier drugs, like cocaine and heroin, inside the tunnels, Hecht said.
In Nogales, a tunnel can be 18 feet deep, sometimes more.
"The training is intensive, it is difficult to walk in these pipes. [Sometimes] I have to crawl on my stomach and move with my arms, it's very difficult," said Thomas Pittman, supervisor of the Border Patrol tunnel team in Arizona.