On a quiet night along the Tijuana border, you can almost hear them coming: the faint scraping of metal on dirt, falling clumps of earth, muted voices in the depths. At any given moment, there are men underground here, chipping their way toward the United States with antlike determination.
Many of the drug tunnels will be discovered and shut down before they’re operational, but it doesn’t matter; more will come. The economics are unassailable. A good tunnel can take nine months or more to build and cost up to $2 million, but if it can stay open for only a few hours, the cartels can move enough marijuana through it to satisfy entire time zones—making enough money to pay for twenty more tunnels.
That is why they never stop coming, and why, on November 29, 2011, Special Agent Tony Armanza 1 found himself lying in the bushes overlooking a nondescript warehouse in San Diego’s Otay Mesa, waiting for signs that one of the tunnels was about to go live.
“It’s getting dark out here, man. I’m starving,” he said into the radio. “What are we gonna do?” He and half a dozen other agents from the San Diego Tunnel Task Force had been watching the warehouse since 5 A.M.—an hour they sardonically called “the butt crack of dawn.” Armanza, face-first in the dirt all day, had been on countless stakeouts before and knew that the odds of the warehouse becoming active were diminishing with the sun; tunnel traffickers like to move their drug shipments during the day, when their trucks can blend in with the thousands of others coursing through the busy shipping district.
Half a mile away, Tim Durst, the supervisor of the task force, heard the exhaustion in Armanza’s voice. Durst was well liked by his men; he knew that Armanza wasn’t the only one tired. With a strong, goateed chin, an angular face, and closely cropped brown hair, Durst looks like a slightly weathered version of the G-man Keanu Reeves played in Point Break.
He had been taking down tunnels on the mesa for five years, and today nearly one hundred agents and local cops were on call, all of them waiting for Durst’s decision. “Five more minutes,” he told his team. Experience had taught him that successful operations sometimes hinged on ridiculously small windows of time and chance. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Armanza reported that a tractor-trailer had backed up to the warehouse’s docking bay.
Armanza couldn’t see inside the warehouse, but he knew what was going on: Men caked with dirt would be scrambling to load shrink-wrapped bales of marijuana—fresh from their passage through the tunnel—onto a truck as quickly as possible. Each bale would weigh some fifty pounds and would soon be tucked into a crate or cardboard box. One by one, they’d be lifted onto the semi. Hundreds of them.
An hour later, when the work was done, the truck’s engine roared and the rig pulled away from the warehouse district, heading north toward the freeway. The agents could have stopped it immediately for an easy seizure, which would give them a search warrant to enter the warehouse and take the tunnel, but Durst’s goal was strategic:
He wanted not just to disrupt the operation but to deal a critical blow to the Sinaloa cartel. That meant following the truck and arresting as many players as possible. As the semi turned onto the freeway, teams of agents in unmarked vehicles followed, each car dropping off as another one picked up the tail, “passing the eye.” But after only thirty miles, the truck’s driver pulled onto a side road, got out of the truck, and walked away.
“We’re burned,” crackled an agent’s voice over the radio. “He’s abandoning the truck.”
This meant another decision for Durst: Should he order his men to move on the truck or wait and see if this was a handoff? He told everyone to wait through the night. At about 6 A.M., another car pulled up and dropped off a fresh driver, who got into the truck and resumed moving the load.
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