NOGALES, Ariz. – The first drug tunnel in the nation was discovered near an old abandoned church in Nogales, Arizona, a border town of fewer than 21,000 people.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said since the discovery in 1995, more than 110 drug tunnels have been found.
The tunnels were not only found within city’s jurisdiction but also in proximity of the main port of entry.
“As you noticed, there is no buffer zone (between the U.S. and Mexico). We are back to back,” Estrada said. “As we speak, there may be one that’s operational right now (or) one that is being constructed.”
THE LINE: We’ve traveled from the Rio Grande Valley to (now) here in Nogales, Arizona. From personal experience, I have not seen the border wall THIS CLOSE to residents who live on the U.S. side. TAKE A LOOK. SERIES➡️https://t.co/32cfRN84Sm #KSATBorderJourney #TheLine #TX2CALI pic.twitter.com/P2YIkzFa63— Adrian Garcia (@adrianrolgarcia) July 26, 2018
Estrada said he believes the tunnels were a result of the government sending thousands of U.S. Border Patrol agents and additional resources to Santa Cruz County.
“About 1995, the U.S. government decided they were going to do something in the urban area to stop the flow,” Estrada said.
The first tunnel that was discovered also marked a new era of how the cartel was going to smuggle drugs into the country.
For Estrada, it was also a crucial turning point for the community.
“The cartels said, ‘OK, (the government) is making it more difficult, we’ll dig underneath,” Estrada said.
THE LINE: ‘Boundary of the United States of America.’ This is how close 2 communities (Nogales from U.S. & Mexico) are to the border wall. As mentioned before, from Rio Grande Valley to Nogales, AZ, I’ve not seen this before. SERIES➡️ https://t.co/32cfRN84Sm #KSATBorderJourney pic.twitter.com/TiKVZzqk2z— Adrian Garcia (@adrianrolgarcia) July 26, 2018
Because they are steps away from each other, Estrada said cartel members began building tunnels home-to-home, business-to-business from Mexico to the other side.
Estrada said the longest tunnel discovered was “hundreds and hundreds of feet long” and was more than likely built over a long period of time.
While people continue to smuggle in drugs and even cross over illegally from Mexico, Estrada said he doesn't believe a border wall will fix the problem.
“No. 1, (the government needs) comprehensive immigration reform. What they have now is broken,” he said.
With Thursday marking the court-ordered deadline for the government to reunite migrant families who were separated following the implementation of the “zero-tolerance” policy, Estrada also tackled the issue head-on.
“One of the worst things any government can do is to separate the children from their families that is the cruelest thing,” Estrada said.
In a conference call w/ HHS and DHS : HHS says they will reunify all eligible migrant parents with their children. #KSATBorderJourney— Tiffany Huertas (@tiffanychuertas) July 26, 2018
711 children are not "eligible" for reunification by today’s deadline, says the government #KSATBorderJourny— Tiffany Huertas (@tiffanychuertas) July 26, 2018
Estrada, who has served in law enforcement for 50 years, migrated to the U.S. from Mexico with his family when he was a toddler.
He has also made history by being the only Hispanic sheriff in Arizona and the longest tenured of 25 years.
Having lived in Nogales almost all of his life, Estrada said he has seen not only his community change drastically but also the same country his family crossed into to seek a better life.
“They did this to scare people, discourage people, make it painful for people. That’s not the America I’m used to seeing.”
According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's website, the Nogales Border Patrol Station consists of two Immigration Patrol Inspectors covering 27 miles of the International Boundary between both sides.