The hole in the tile of the former Kentucky Fried Chicken was small: eight inches in diameter, barely large enough to fit a 15-piece family bucket. It could have easily been overlooked as just another deteriorating aspect of an abandoned fast-food restaurant, had authorities not known better.
After all, this wasn’t just any vacant KFC, but one in San Luis, Arizona, situated some 200 yards north of the U.S.-Mexico border. A person going through the old drive-through window might have caught glimpses of the 20-foot-tall border fence separating San Luis from Mexico in his rearview mirror.
Moreover, on Aug. 13, local police had arrested the building’s owner, Ivan Lopez, at a traffic stop where he was found with more than 325 pounds of illicit drugs. Records revealed Lopez had purchased the former KFC in April, paying $390,000 - all cash - for the abandoned restaurant. Soon, authorities from Immigration and Customs Enforcement obtained a search warrant and surrounded the building.
Once inside, they knew just where to look: Down at the ground. This was no fried chicken joint anymore.
Their suspicions were nearly confirmed with the discovery of the 8-inch opening, along a wall in the former restaurant’s rear kitchen area. Agents chipped away at its sides and, as the concrete gave way, the hole became a shaft. One person shimmied down and turned on a flashlight, scanning the surroundings. Hundreds of wooden two-by-four planks lined the walls, shoring up a veritable walkway that led due south.
It was an underground tunnel to Mexico.
The discovery, announced Wednesday, demanded inevitable comparisons to "Breaking Bad" and Los Pollos Hermanos. Countless news stories relayed the tunnel’s dimensions - 3 feet wide, 5 feet tall, about 600 feet long - as well as the mind-boggling amount of hard drugs that had been found on Lopez, more than $1 million worth of cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanyl and heroin.
But the tunnel affirmed another unspoken rule on America’s Southwest border: What can’t go up must go down. Or rather, what can’t go over the wall can and will go under it.
This was hardly the first tunnel, and it certainly wasn’t the most sophisticated one, to be discovered along the border, multiple officials said. It was simply the latest, in an ongoing game of drug-trafficking whack-a-mole that has literally moved underground.
"Unusual? Yes. But surprising? No," said San Luis Police Chief Richard Jessup, when asked about the presence of these tunnels, a stone’s throw away from a bustling, official port of entry. "I mean, we’re the largest border city in Arizona with almost 38,000 people and growing very rapidly,"
Another tunnel had been found in the city in 2012, also close to the former KFC. Jessup pointed out there was already a border wall that spanned far beyond San Luis city limits, comprised of not just one, but two 20-foot-tall fences. One ran along the actual border and another ran parallel to the first, about 50 yards north. Border Patrol agents patrolled the dirt path in between the two fences.
"It’s very difficult in our area to get over that wall. You either are going to take a drone and fly it over or you tunnel underneath it," Jessup said. "Of course, if you can’t go over the wall, you go under the wall."
And so people have. There have been 203 tunnels discovered in the U.S. Border Patrol’s history, and this was the fifth one to be discovered in that region since 2007, said Border Patrol spokesman Jose Garibay III.
"Generally along the southwest border, every couple of months, we’re encountering a tunnel," said Scott Brown, special agent in charge for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations. "Tunnels are something we are constantly on the lookout for."
Most are rudimentary, hand-dug tunnels that are unfinished, Brown said. In rare instances, however, agents will come upon a "sophisticated tunnel," with everything from power lines to ventilation systems to concrete flooring. He believes the farthest a tunnel has made it across the U.S. border is about 2,000 feet.
Tunnels can be difficult to detect without sophisticated equipment or intelligence that keeps law enforcement officers one step ahead of the cartels who build them. But there are also some dead giveaways.
"One thing is a big pile of dirt," Brown said, doing some quick mental math for the tunnel just discovered under the former KFC. "Again this is a 5-foot-by-3-foot-wide-by 590-feet-long hole in the ground. Rough estimate is that’s about 200 tons of dirt they had to get out and move surreptitiously."
Other times an unwitting resident on either side of the border will report suspicious activity to law enforcement.
"We’ve had instances where people have come in and said, ‘Hey, I’m sitting in my house at night, and I hear this constant scratch-scratch-scratching, and I can’t figure out what it is,’" Brown said. "Well, again, you tell that to an HSI or Border Patrol agent, they’re going to guess somebody’s tunneling underneath your house or in close proximity to your house."
While other tunnels might have been used for human smuggling, this one appeared to have been "limited" to the drug trade, owing to the tiny opening on the U.S. side, officials said. On the Mexico side, the tunnel’s entrance was hidden beneath a trapdoor under a bed in a residential home.
More alarming than the existence of the tunnel was what passed through it, Brown said.
"Generally with tunnels what we’ve seen is marijuana," he said. "This was a purely hard narcotics tunnel. Everything that we seized was hard narcotics. So I think that’s what makes this tunnel a little unique and frankly a little more scary than some of the other ones we’ve seen."