Sinaloa cartel tunnels to Otay Mesa are infrastructural marvels

"People think that you have a shovel and you dig. That’s not the way it works.”

2011 Otay Mesa drug tunnel

At 8:52 P.M. on July 11th, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug kingpin known as El Chapo, sat on the bed of his cell in Altiplano, Mexico’s only super-maximum-security prison. Surveillance footage appears to show a small screen glowing on a table nearby — inmates are not allowed cell phones, but this rule is not always enforced. Guzmán changed his shoes, walked to a shower area in the corner of the cell, and knelt behind a waist-high concrete partition, out of view of security cameras. Six seconds later, he was gone.

A rough-edged opening, about 20 inches square, had been cut into the floor. According to Mexico’s national-security commissioner, Guzmán climbed into the hole and down a ladder, entering a 4921-foot-long tunnel. Fluorescent lights hung from a ceiling-mounted PVC pipe, which also brought fresh air into the passageway. Metal tracks had been bolted to the ground, allowing an ad-hoc vehicle — a railcar rigged to the frame of a small motorcycle — to be driven from one end of the tunnel to the other. The gray stone walls, about 30 inches apart, were scored with jagged marks made by electric spades; Guzmán’s shoulders probably brushed the walls as he passed.

The tunnel ended beneath a small cinderblock house in an open field. As Guzmán climbed a wooden ladder toward ground level, he passed the evidence of what seemed to be a months-long engineering project: a generator, which had powered the tools that workmen used to build the tunnel; a heavy-duty electric winch, to lower machinery into the pit; gallons of hydraulic fluid; coils of steel mesh.

Guzmán’s method of escape should have surprised no one. Last year, in Culiacán, he evaded Mexican marines by disappearing into a network of subterranean passageways connecting seven houses. He did not invent smuggling tunnels — bank robbers, rum runners, and guerrillas had used them for decades — but his criminal enterprise, the Sinaloa drug cartel, built the first cross-border narcotúnel in 1989. Since then, Sinaloa has refined the art of underground construction and has used tunnels more effectively than any criminal group in history.

In the past quarter century, officials have discovered 181 illicit passages under the U.S.-Mexico border. Most have been short, narrow “gopher holes” just big enough for a person to crawl through. Sinaloa specializes instead in infrastructural marvels that federal agents call supertunnels. Agents estimate that a single supertunnel takes several months and more than a million dollars to build. Many include elevators, electric lights, ventilation ducts, and cleverly disguised entry and exit shafts. They can reach as deep as 70 feet, and they tend to be tall enough for an adult to walk or ride through.

These days, most of Sinaloa’s supertunnels are used to ferry drugs across the border, from Garita de Otay, an industrial neighborhood in northern Tijuana, to Otay Mesa, a similar area in southern San Diego. Otay Mesa, which is bounded on the north by Brown Field Municipal Airport and on the south by Mexico, consists of highways, strip malls, and a few hundred warehouses clustered near the border. Most supertunnels terminate inside these warehouses, making them difficult to detect.

The amount of warehouse space in Otay Mesa has nearly quadrupled since the mid-’90s, and the expansion has been almost as frenetic in Garita de Otay. Forklifts, jackhammers, and heavy vehicles attract little attention. Cartel trucks back into loading bays, pallets are loaded in, and the drugs are delivered north to distribution hubs. There are three official border crossings near Otay Mesa; one, for commercial vehicles, is inside the industrial zone. “All of this has created a candy store for smugglers,” a U.S. agent told me. “This whole area belongs to them.”

Hundreds of federal agents — from Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — work in a pair of large unmarked buildings on the edge of the Otay Mesa district. Among them are the ten members of the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, a multi-agency group created in 2003. The agents have found an average of two tunnels a year, but most of the people they have arrested have been low-tier Sinaloa operatives, such as truck drivers and warehouse supervisors. Information within the cartel is compartmentalized, so that even when workers are caught and tempted with plea bargains they are unable to divulge much actionable intelligence.

“There are so many questions,” Tim Durst, a former Tunnel Task Force supervisor, told the Wall Street Journal, in 2013. “What are their techniques? How the heck do they build these things so well?”

Recent investigations — including a pending case involving a man believed to have been Sinaloa’s highest-ranking tunnel manager — have provided some answers. Sherri Hobson, a federal prosecutor in San Diego, told me, “I think it’s a very small group of elite members of the cartel that are doing this. This is highly sophisticated work. A lot of people think that you have a shovel and you dig. That’s not the way it works.”

In December of 2012, .a 19-year-old named Fernando walked into Mama Mia, a pizzeria in a Tijuana strip mall, and asked for a job application. As he filled out the form, a stranger entered the shop. According to statements later collected by Mexican authorities, the man handed Fernando his phone number and asked whether he wanted a job cleaning a convenience store.

Fernando never heard back from Mama Mia. Eventually, desperate for work, he called the stranger’s number and met him at the strip mall. The man offered good money—1200 pesos (about 75 dollars) a week — and Fernando agreed to go with him to look at the job site. From the strip mall, a highway leads north, past the graffiti-covered concrete walls surrounding the Tijuana Airport to the pitted roads of Garita de Otay, where convoys of 18-wheelers stir up dust that never quite settles. The warehouses, bland and beige, resemble cardboard boxes.

They stopped in front of a structure with no identifying marks except the street address, stencilled in black. Inside, behind a rolling gate, was a loading bay big enough to accommodate a dump truck. Inside was a storage room with cinderblock walls. Fernando didn’t see anyone else in the storage room — just a deep hole and sacks of dirt. The man told Fernando that things had changed: he would be digging a tunnel, not cleaning a store. If he tried to leave, he and his family would be killed.

Around that time, 16 other men fell into the same trap. Across Tijuana, at bus stations and on busy street corners, they were lured to the warehouse by the prospect of temporary jobs. Some said that they had been promised safe passage across the border in exchange for a few hours of construction work. Fernando was the youngest of them, and one of only two Tijuana natives. Most were laborers from Mexico’s rural interior who had travelled north seeking opportunity.

According to the men, the overseer of the project, who called himself Carlos, was in his mid-30s, with a thin, weedy mustache and a baseball cap pulled low over his brow. Carlos split the men into two groups. Fernando worked the day shift, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; at night, he slept in the warehouse with the rest of his crew. Carlos brought the workers food and made sure no one left the building.

From an opening in the floor of the storage room, a shaft descended about 35 feet to a small chamber, where grapefruit-size rocks were embedded in the soil. Most of the time, five or six men worked inside the chamber, lengthening it into a tunnel by chipping away at the earth with handheld electric spades and filling sandbags with dirt and rocks. Three other workers hauled the bags out using a makeshift elevator — a large metal cage connected to an electric pulley system. The sandbags were then piled onto wooden pallets in the loading bay. Occasionally, Carlos was joined by other overseers, who wore ski masks. They’d threaten to beat the workmen if their northward progress slowed. The workers gained about five meters a day. At that rate, they would pass the border in about three months and reach Otay Mesa a few weeks later.

Photos subsequently showed that the ceiling of the tunnel was slightly arched, a standard characteristic of Sinaloa supertunnels, which helps to distribute the pressure of the earth and prevent collapse. The red beam of a laser pointer, running through the dusty air in the center of the passageway, kept the diggers on course. In humid, confined spaces, oxygen can drop to fatal levels. With pipe clamps, the men affixed a black plastic tube to the top of the tunnel for ventilation. They laid two metal tracks, which enabled them to ferry debris back to the elevator in a miner’s cart. Later, the rails could carry drug shipments to Otay Mesa.

The walls retained their form as the men worked, but threats were ever present. The history of subterranean excavation, from the ancient Egyptians to the coal miners of Appalachia, is dense with tragedy — any strike of a pickaxe can release a deadly rush of groundwater, spark a methane fireball, or disrupt the soil enough to cause a collapse. In A History of Tunnels, the historian Patrick Beaver writes that even as late as the mid-20th century it was estimated that for every mile of tunnel built, one worker died.

The biggest risk to the Tijuana diggers was probably groundwater. In the Otay Mesa region, its presence is unusually difficult to predict. “One year, you might hit massive amounts of groundwater,” a U.S. agent who examines tunnels in the area told me. “Then you might go a mile east or west, within a couple of months, and there might not be any groundwater at all.” The captive diggers had little choice but to keep going. They followed a slight upward grade, which was likely a safety precaution: if they encountered groundwater, it could flow downhill, to the origin of the tunnel, where it would be pumped out.

In February 2013, the Mexican army, acting on an anonymous tip, raided the warehouse in Tijuana. The first person they encountered was a surprised 25-year-old named Juan José, who was in a bathroom, his face coated in dust. Nearby, two men hauled sacks of dirt out of the elevator. While the soldiers talked to the men, four others remained in the chamber, wondering why it was taking so long for the elevator to come back down. Eventually, all the workers were brought in for questioning, but they claimed to have no knowledge of drugs or smuggling. Carlos might have been able to tell the police more, but, according to the workers, he had left the building 20 minutes earlier, “to go to the store.” Based on the tunnel’s location and design, the police assumed that it was the work of the Sinaloa cartel, but they made no more arrests.

Fernando and the other diggers were taken to La Mesa prison, about four miles from the warehouse, where they are still being held. They may have been lucky to be arrested. Joseph DiMeglio, the head of the Tunnel Task Force, told me that, when a tunnel is finished, diggers are sometimes recaptured and forced to work on another project. Other times, he said, “the cartel takes them out back, you know, and gets rid of them.”

Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug kingpin known as El Chapo

Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug kingpin known as El Chapo

Guzmán founded the Sinaloa cartel in the mid-’80s. By the end of the decade, the Arellano-Félix Organization controlled the border near Tijuana. Guzmán took over smuggling routes farther east, in Arizona. He hired pilots to fly shipments of cocaine from Colombia to private landing strips in Mexico. The drugs were loaded into vans fitted with false floors and then driven to Douglas, Arizona, and from there to Los Angeles. Using that method, Guzmán was able to smuggle in three tons of cocaine a month.

One of Guzmán’s associates was Felipe de Jesus Corona-Verbera, a 1980 graduate of the University of Guadalajara’s architecture school, who drove a gray Chrysler New Yorker, wore fine suits, and carried an attaché case. Corona-Verbera visited one cartel-owned property after another: a warehouse in Guanajuato; a supermarket in Guadalajara; a rural compound where Guzmán kept lions, bears, and crocodiles. He and Guzmán appeared to be close friends. Miguel Ángel Martínez, a member of the cartel, later told U.S. prosecutors that Corona-Verbera was the only person he’d ever heard addressing Guzmán with the informal tú; everyone else used the more deferential usted.

In 1989, Corona-Verbera, with his wife and children, moved into a trailer park on Route 666 in Douglas. He hired a local contractor, William Woods, to build a gazebo beside his trailer. He also hired Woods for a bigger project: a two-thousand-square-foot warehouse, to be built about a block from the Mexican border. The blueprints looked professional, but oddities soon emerged. Corona-Verbera said that the building would be used as a wash bay, to hose down trucks. His plans called for drain openings, but, according to Adalberto Romero, a worker at the site, the openings did not lead to functional drains. He asked Corona-Verbera about this. “He said I had nothing to do with it, to just shut up and continue doing it,” Romero said. One night, at a nearby work site just south of the border, Romero saw more than 20 workmen, who appeared to be from rural Mexico, pushing wheelbarrows in the dark.

Within a few months, the cartel had its first supertunnel. It originated at a Sinaloa-owned house in Agua Prieta, a Mexican border town, and ended some 300 feet away, at the warehouse in Douglas. At the house in Agua Prieta, the only way to access the tunnel was to turn on an outdoor water spigot; this triggered a hydraulic system that lifted up a billiard table in a game room on the ground floor, exposing a ladder to the tunnel.

With below-ground smuggling, Sinaloa’s business quickly expanded. “If three planes arrived per week, now ten were arriving,” Martínez recalled. Guzmán’s Colombian partners began to call him El Rápido because, according to Martínez, “before the planes were arriving back in Colombia on the return, the cocaine was already in Los Angeles.” Guzmán told Martínez, “Corona made a fucking cool tunnel. Tell them to send all the drugs they can send.”

U.S. law-enforcement agents learned about the tunnel from a confidential informant. In May 1990, a team raided the house in Agua Prieta. In the game room, Terry Kirkpatrick, a customs agent, moved the billiard table and pulled back a rug, exposing a patch of concrete. He used a jackhammer to drill through the floor. Under the concrete was a subterranean chamber larger than the game room. Later, another agent happened to turn on the water spigot, causing the concrete slab to rise toward the ceiling as the agents looked on, stunned.

San Diego Tunnel Task Force at Otay Mesa Drug Tunnel in 2014

San Diego Tunnel Task Force at Otay Mesa Drug Tunnel in 2014

After the raid, Corona-Verbera and his family fled to Mexico. Instead of lying low in a Mexico City safe house, he left the city to be with his family in Guadalajara. According to Martínez, Guzmán dismissed his old friend with a terse malediction: “Let him get fucked.” Eventually, Corona-Verbera was arrested and extradited to the U.S.

Two months after the tunnel was discovered, a group of Sinaloa suspects was detained. Two of them led Kirkpatrick and other agents about 30 miles outside of Agua Prieta and showed them a mass grave. Here, they said, were the diggers who had built the tunnel to Arizona.

Meanwhile, Sinaloa was slowly gaining ground near Tijuana. After the 1990 bust, Guzmán focused on above–ground operations, smuggling drugs inside cans of chili peppers. But in 1992 the cartel paid $1.1 million for a warehouse in Otay Mesa. Soon, its second supertunnel project, and its first on the West Coast, was under construction.

The soil around Otay Mesa is a mixture of volcanic ash, glassy fragments, and clay. Whether the Sinaloa cartel realized it or not, the region is a geological sweet spot for building tunnels: a couple of miles to the west, the ground is sandier; to the east, where the San Ysidro Mountains straddle the border, the subsoil is harder and under more pressure. In Otay Mesa, the soil is soft enough to be dug by hand, yet firm enough so that the tunnel walls can often stand without wood or concrete reinforcement.

In 1993, the Arellano-Félix Organization murdered Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, apparently mistaking him for Guzmán. This sparked a manhunt, which culminated in Guzmán’s arrest (and, subsequently, his first prison escape). During the manhunt, agents uncovered Sinaloa’s California tunnel. It was more than four times the length of the tunnel to Douglas. In the press, law-enforcement officials marvelled at its lighting and ventilation systems, and the poured-concrete flooring that allowed railcars to run smoothly. Nothing like it had been built before. “I was impressed by the Douglas tunnel, but this one here is the Taj Mahal of tunnels,” a customs agent told the Los Angeles Times. Terry Kirkpatrick told me, “It was a wakeup call.”

The San Diego Tunnel Task Force owns two ground-penetrating radar devices that look a bit like push lawnmowers. The machines fire electromagnetic signals deep into the ground, and an L.C.D. screen shows the patterns of the waves as they ricochet back to the surface. The agents do not use these machines often because they aren’t very effective. According to Steve Sloan, a geophysicist who has studied tunnel detection, the heterogeneous soil near Otay Mesa creates an unusual amount of background noise. On the screen, most deep-set geophysical variations — seams of rock, mismatched strata of soil, and excavation projects — show up as indistinct lines. Investigators can determine what a given line represents only by digging, which is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

For decades, tunnels have defied detection by satellites, motion sensors, and thermal imaging systems. During the Vietnam War, when the Vietcong used underground passages like the Cu Chi tunnel network to launch surprise attacks, the Army had no effective tunnel-detection technology, so it had no choice but to send infantrymen — “tunnel rats” — on dangerous search-and-destroy missions. Serious research into tunnel detection began in the mid-1970s, after intelligence indicated that Kim Il-sung, the president of North Korea, had dug more than 20 tunnels across the border into South Korea, for use in a future invasion. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency attempted to design reliable detection technology using seismic and electromagnetic waves, to no avail.

In 2005, the U.S. government funded the Tunnel Detection Initiative, which recruited academics, industry specialists, and military engineers to detect excavation near the border. “It seemed like a really simple problem,” Nedra Bonal, one of the geophysicists who worked on the initiative, said. “You have a hole in the ground, and I thought I’d look at the seismic data and that would be that.” But, according to a government report, the proposals yielded “massive amounts of data and unacceptably high false alarm rates.”

So, the Tunnel Task Force agents patrol the Otay Mesa district on foot. The law prevents them from searching warehouses at random, without probable cause; instead, they knock on doors, hand out business cards, and ask laborers to report anything suspicious. “We’ve gotten multiple leads from doing that,” DiMeglio, of the Tunnel Task Force, told me. Agents also monitor telephone calls.

In May 2010, Homeland Security investigators began listening to the calls of a mid-level Sinaloa operative nicknamed Enrique. He and the other operatives used nicknames for their bosses. Someone they called Quirino seemed to be in charge of a major tunnel project. The men also talked about Primo, who was moody. “Primo is very bitter right now,” Enrique said at one point. “I mean, no one can talk to him.” Other nicknames — Garañón, Greñudo, El Viejo — seemed to refer to other bosses. The agents believed that the tunnels were being built by construction cells that were loosely affiliated with Sinaloa but unrelated to each other.

On October 18, 2010, Mexican authorities seized 134 tons of marijuana from a warehouse in Tijuana, about two miles from the border. It was the largest pot bust in Mexican history. They piled the marijuana on a giant wooden platform, rigged it with fuel and gunpowder, and ignited a heady bonfire that burned for two days. Mexican authorities estimated that the shipment, if sold on the street, could have netted more than 300 million dollars.

On the day of the seizure, investigators listened to a call between Enrique and another suspect, who went by “Tuy.”

“Was it everything?” Tuy said.

“Absolutely everything,” Enrique said.

“And was it made public?” Tuy said.

“Well, I have the radio on here,” Enrique said. “I can hear it. I’m listening to it now. All of the shrimp went bad.”

The agents had been eavesdropping on these men for months, and they had deciphered their simple code: “shrimp” meant drugs; a “project” was a tunnel. Even though the shrimp had gone bad, Enrique said, “the project is still standing.”

Marijuana is bulkier and more pungent than cocaine or heroin, making it riskier to smuggle through border crossings. Supertunnels are the ideal method of transport for marijuana. Pot is easy to grow, and the profit margins are irresistible: it can be sold in the U.S. for more than ten times its worth in Tijuana. Mexico’s main marijuana-farming region is in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, 800 miles south of the border. This region includes the state of Sinaloa, where Guzmán was born. If Colombian cocaine was the cartel’s emblematic product during Guzmán’s early years, homegrown marijuana was always his hedge, a commodity that he could control across every link in the supply chain.

In 2006, the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that 61 percent of Mexican drug traffickers’ profits were “directly tied to marijuana export sales.” (Other analyses vary significantly. In 2010, the RAND Corporation estimated that the proportion was between 15 and 26 percent.) Prices of illegal goods tend to be artificially inflated. As more states decriminalize marijuana, Sinaloa’s profits from the drug could fall, forcing it to increase its volume. This would require more supertunnels. Or, DiMeglio says, Sinaloa might diversify. Until recently, raids on San Diego supertunnels yielded only marijuana; in 2013, a supertunnel raid uncovered 327 pounds of cocaine.

In 2017, a fourth official border crossing will be built near Otay Mesa, and new retail businesses are already opening in the commercial plazas that flank the warehouses. In one of these plazas, next to a duty-free liquor store, I saw a zoning notice taped to a vacant storefront. I called the number and reached David Blair, a lecturer at San Diego State University’s business school. His shop, A Green Alternative, is the first licensed medical-marijuana dispensary in San Diego. He picked Otay Mesa, he said, in part because it was one of the few places where city zoning laws allow him to open — other places were too close to houses or schools. A half-mile from the dispensary are two warehouses where supertunnels were recently discovered. A 73-year-old woman who worked at one of the warehouses pleaded guilty to federal money-laundering charges last year.

After the marijuana seizure in October, 2010, investigators continued to listen to wiretapped calls, which seemed to indicate that two supertunnel projects were still underway, and that at least one of them was being led by Quirino. On whiteboards and corkboards, investigators tried to map out which operatives were affiliated with which digging projects. They tacked up pictures of known suspects; unidentified suspects were represented by a generic silhouette or a question mark.

In early November, agents raided a tunnel in Otay Mesa and arrested a truck driver who was carrying marijuana from the site. They turned the driver’s cell phones over to federal prosecutors. After the bust, the suspects on the wiretaps indicated that Quirino’s project had not been interrupted. This seemed to confirm the investigators’ assumption that the construction cells were unrelated. But, later that month, agents raided another supertunnel and arrested a warehouse manager at the site. Studying the manager’s telephone records, they noticed that he had talked to the truck driver from the other site, and that both men had contacted the same person: Quirino.

One of the investigators refers to that as the “Luke, I am your father” moment: it became clear that there was only one construction cell and that Quirino was its boss. All the nicknames — Primo, Greñudo, and so on — referred to the same man. He seemed to be in charge of all aspects of Sinaloa’s supertunnels: storage of the drugs in Tijuana, construction and transportation schedules, rental and purchase of warehouses on both sides of the border.

The more the agents learned about Quirino, whose real name they still did not know, the more he seemed like a shrewd and vigilant manager. Packages were marked with labels that seemed incongruous — Burberry, Donald Duck. Investigators believed that Quirino was using the labels to keep his accounts in order by identifying which parcels belonged to which dealers. Once, he ordered digging to stop because of “eyes on the north side” — someone had been snooping around one of his warehouses in Otay Mesa. (Federal investigators later learned that the San Bernardino County police had been near the warehouse on an unrelated lead.) Although the tunnel was nearly complete, Quirino told his operatives to rent a different warehouse, a few blocks away, and redirect the digging toward the new warehouse. The tunnel reached its new exit point three months later. “Nothing I’ve ever seen criminally has worked as efficiently as it did when he was the boss,” an agent told me.

In early 2012, Mexican police arrested Quirino in Zapopan, an upscale suburb of Guadalajara. His real name was José Sanchez-Villalobos, and he had recently turned 49. They described him as Sinaloa’s financial officer in charge of the California border region. For a man suspected of being such a key figure in the drug trade, he had maintained a remarkably low profile — even Mexican journalists specializing in the Sinaloa cartel had never heard of him — but the few facts that emerged were consistent with a caricature of a cartel boss: it was said that he owned a racetrack, on which he drove his collection of Aston Martins, and that he kept a baby panther as a pet.

About a year after Sanchez-Villalobos was arrested, investigators heard chatter on the phone lines again. New taskmasters had stepped in to oversee supertunnel construction. The new bosses seemed to lack their predecessor’s managerial skill, but, according to Sherri Hobson, the prosecutor in San Diego, they were starting to adapt. Drugs are now distributed in smaller shipments, and drivers on the California side use smaller trucks. The cartel also seems to be testing tunnel locations that require novel excavation techniques. This April, as Border Patrol agents were raking the soil near the border fence — they do this regularly, to render fresh footprints more visible — they saw what they thought was a natural sinkhole. It turned out to be a collapsed supertunnel running toward a residential neighborhood in San Diego, about five miles east of Otay Mesa. The soil there is sandy, DiMeglio said, and “a lot of shoring needs to be done in that area, because sand doesn’t hold like clay does.”

Recently, agents raiding Sinaloa dig sites have found horizontal directional drilling machines, which oil and gas companies often use to build pipelines, and which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Horizontal directional drilling requires less manual labor than traditional digging, and the machines bore smaller, shallower tunnels. If Sinaloa were to transition to a network of such pipelines, it could use air pressure to propel parcels of drugs under the border through pneumatic tubes.

Another tunnel, which was recently discovered in the Imperial Valley, about a hundred miles east of Otay Mesa, terminated in a canal. Security footage shows a man emerging from the water in a wetsuit. Near the canal, Border Patrol agents found nearly 60 pounds of cocaine and three scuba tanks. Two of the tanks were “rebreathers”— special cylinders that allow divers to stay underwater for long periods without leaving trails of bubbles. “It just shows another level of how they’re trying to be creative,” Hobson said.

Sanchez-Villalobos is being held in the high-priority section of the Altiplano prison — the same wing that Guzmán fled in July. The facts about Guzmán’s escape, along with several unanswered questions — Could he communicate with other prisoners through the bars of his cell? Why didn’t anyone hear digging? — provide grist for conspiracy theorists. If Guzmán had a cell phone in spite of prison rules, it’s possible that Sanchez-Villalobos did, too, and that he helped coordinate the escape tunnel from inside. Many elements of the smuggling tunnels in Otay Mesa — the depth, the lighting and ventilation systems, the wood shoring around the entry shaft — seemed to be replicated in the Altiplano escape tunnel. “Based on the spade marks in the side walls, it looks like it was cut in the same manner, and that the soil consistency was similar to Otay Mesa,” a special agent who has examined many Sinaloa tunnels told me.

In December 2013, a Mexican court ordered that Sanchez-Villalobos be extradited to the U.S. He appealed. Such legal battles can take years, and Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, has been loath to let Mexican prisoners out of the country. (It remains to be seen whether embarrassment over Guzmán’s second escape will soften Peña Nieto’s stance.) According to immigration records, at the time of his arrest in Mexico, Sanchez-Villalobos was a legal permanent resident of the U.S. He claimed Perris, California, not far from Riverside, as his primary residence. Federal authorities say that he listed his occupation as “construction.”

This article first appeared in the August 3, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.

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For such a detailed story, even if it came from The New Yorker, the lack of comments so far has me wondering. Is all this now just old hat for San Diegans? Then there's the question of how a reporter from that far-away mag was able to get such detailed and insightful info when local folks don't report such things. Well, there are some passages in the narrative that don't come across as real. More as if the reporter made them up. Finally, for a mag that seems to celebrate things that happen east of the Hudson, just why did it take up such a topic? Maybe I need to start reading The New Yorker, and catch up on the world at large.

The problem is not that San Diegans find this old hat. They never really get exposed to much of the reality of their region because the local newspapers and weekly tabloids like this one are so lousy and incompetent. And yeah, it gripes me to see reporters from the LA Times or New York hit the border for 48 hours and write a skewed story about something I know much more about, but I've gotten used to it. Reading the New Yorker doesn't catch you up with the world, just Manhattan. Pick up the LA Times and suddenly see that there is all this amazing stuff HAPPENING out there, and written about intelligently.

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