Officer John Irwin had seen a lot during his time working for U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but he had never seen anything like this. It all began when HSI special agent Scott Brown had put him in charge of a raid on a KFC building in Arizona. Brown had received an anonymous tip-off that led him to believe that the fast food chain was hiding more than their trademarked 11 secret herbs and spices.
Locals of San Luis remember a time when they could grab a bucket of fried chicken just 200 yards away from the Mexican border, but one day the KFC mysteriously shut its doors to the public, and the once popular restaurant’s shell deteriorated. The sign faded in the baking heat, and the paint began to bubble off the walls. It stood empty for years, but strangely enough, there were always a few cars parked outside, and nobody knew why.
Months after the KFC shut its doors, lights began to go on inside the building late at night. The locals began to speculate that the building might see a reopening, yet they heard the blasting and drilling and assumed that the restaurant was undergoing a revamp. But to everyone’s surprise, the building remained closed. Then the rumors began.
Late one evening, HSI special agent Scott Brown’s personal cell phone rang. Annoyed by the late hour, Brown considered sending the call straight to voicemail, but then a strange feeling came over him. He answered gruffly, but he never dreamed that the man on the other end of the line would give him a tip-off like this. He had to get a warrant, and fast.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement applied for a warrant to search the defunct KFC building, and when it was granted, officer John Irwin was dispatched to head the team of ICE agents. But when he entered the dusty kitchen, he discovered an eight-inch hole in the wall. He called for backup, and they began to chip away at the plaster surrounding the hole, revealing a deep shaft. What had they found?
Officer John Irwin shone a flashlight into the pitch-black shaft and was astounded to see hundreds of wooden planks lining the walls. The team carefully climbed inside, down into a dark passageway. The tunnel was three feet wide and five feet tall, large enough for a man to fit easily inside. Officer Irvin took a deep breath, and then he disappeared into the tunnel. The officers followed, walking along the tunnel quietly and praying that armed guards weren’t waiting for them on the other side.
Just how deep did the passageway go, and what would they find? Suddenly, the silence was broken by the sound of footsteps running in the opposite direction. They weren’t alone. That’s when an unbelievable reality began to dawn on them. It occurred to Officer Irwin in an instant – the tunnel was positioned to go under the Mexican border, straight into Mexico.
At the end of the 600-yard long passage, they came to a ladder that led to a trap door in the ceiling. Officer John Irwin signaled for silence as they braced themselves for a moment, then he kicked through the trap door. After swiftly breaking through the trap door, Officer Irwin cautiously peered out. Above him, he saw rusty bed springs. They would have to climb out to investigate, but when they did, they couldn’t believe their eyes – they had ended up underneath a bed in a Mexican home.
Then Officer Irvin noticed the long rope next to the trapdoor’s entrance, but he didn’t have time to inspect it. Someone was coming. The officers heard footsteps echoing through the tunnel and saw the faint beam of a flashlight. They stood back and waited, and the man practically walked into them. His eyes widened when he reached the top of the ladder and found himself surrounded by ICE agents. He had a suitcase in his hand, which was promptly confiscated. What had been going on here?
The first piece of the puzzle had arrived by pure chance. Just weeks prior to the discovery of the tunnel, Border Police had pulled a man over for a routine traffic stop. After the usual questions, the man’s license and plate seemed to check out. The officers were about to let the man go on his way when suddenly their service dog took one sniff at his trailer and went ballistic. The officers searched the trailer and found two toolboxes, but when they cracked them open, they were floored. On closer inspection, both boxes contained illegal substances. The man named Ivan Lopez was immediately arrested.
But delving deeper into the man’s history exposed a brazen operation that no one had seen coming. Lopez’s freedom had come to an end, but his legacy had just begun. After Lopez’s arrest, HSI special agent Scott Brown received an unsettling phone call. The call was from an anonymous resident who gave him a reason to suspect that they were only just scratching the surface of Lopez’s crimes.
After some digging, Brown discovered that it was Lopez who had purchased the old KFC for which he had paid 390 thousand dollars in cash. He immediately contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but was he fast enough? After putting two and two together, it was clear to officials that the reason for this brazen under-border tunnel was to enable Lopez and his cohorts to smuggle contraband into the U.S from Mexico. Indeed, Lopez’s confiscated toolboxes held narcotics worth around 1 million dollars. But how had they gotten away with it?
Officials believe that due to the tunnel’s size, the people involved in the trafficking would climb down through the trap door in the Mexican home and walk the 600-yard passageway until they were directly underneath the old KFC building. They would then deposit the illicit substances, and they would be lifted out with a rope through the 8-inch hole in the restaurant’s wall.
But this tunnel isn’t the first one of its kind in Arizona. Tunnels are a time-consuming venture, but they have definitely increased since border security measures have ramped up. HSI special agent Scott Brown said in a statement, nevertheless, the tunnel shooting out from the abandoned fast-food restaurant is still a noteworthy addition to the long list of instances along the border, mostly because of the huge weight of hard narcotics seemingly transported through it.