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Wednesday February 28, 2001

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Feds discover drugs in Nogales Wash

By The Associated Press

TUCSON - Federal agents discovered a 25-foot dirt tunnel that was apparently being used to smuggle drugs across the Mexican border and seized 840 pounds of cocaine from the Arizona house at one end of the passage.

U.S. Customs Service agents discovered the crude, hand-dug tunnel Monday. It ran from a sewer system to a house about three-quarters of a mile north of the Mexican border, said Customs spokesman Roger Maier.

No arrests were made, and agents were continuing their investigation, authorities said.

"At this point, we have no idea how long it was there, but it appears from the evidence that it had been utilized for some time," Maier said.

The sewer, which carries runoff rains and sewage to an international wastewater treatment plant, is connected to Nogales Wash, a dry stream-bed that runs north across the international boundary and under downtown Nogales.

The wash is frequently used by drug smugglers, as well as by illegal immigrants entering the United States from Mexico.

"The drugs probably were smuggled from Mexico through the wash, into the sewer pipe, then into the tunnel and into the house," Maier said.

The discovery came as agents were investigating possible smuggling activity at the home. They found no one at home but noticed dirt between a window blind and window, leading them to suspect digging.

The tunnel's soil appeared compacted, and Maier added that investigators reasoned the tunnel had been used "very recently, because in most cases they're not going to leave 840 pounds of cocaine sitting there unattended very long."

The tunnel had a string of temporary lights, with bare bulbs hanging from an electric cord. There was no ventilation, Maier said.

Customs agents with a search warrant searched the home, discovering 198 cocaine bricks in the front room. The cocaine was estimated to be worth $6.5 million wholesale, Maier said.

The tunnel was the sixth discovered in Nogales. The first was found in 1995. Three more tunnels were discovered in 1999 and one in 2000, all coming off sewer pipes branching off from the Nogales Wash.