Inside US-Mexican Border Tunnels
“Watch your head, don’t drink the water, and don’t pet the animals” were the instructions given before entering the tunnels of the US-Mexican border. Ahead of time, it was advised that we bring a flashlight, a water bottle, and to dress for muddy conditions. Not taking that last part lightly, I employed the most rugged, all-weather footwear I own: red paisley rain boots. Sewer water and rats be damned. Starting as natural rivers below ground, the tunnels go back as far as the border itself. With considerable focus being placed on illegal entry into the US, this opportunity could not have come at a more relevant time. Join me as I introduce you to the tunnels used by traffickers, and those who guard them.
Inside US-Mexican Border Tunnels: Part One
The portal was not at all what I expected. Rather than a dirt hole, we made our way down concrete stairs, and into a brightly lit chamber. Untreated waste water passed over our feet as we noted a height chart on a far wall as well as steel gates, and security cameras. This particular passage was used to control flood water, while the gates were designed to break open on impact. Once the tunnel reaches capacity, the overflow channels out onto the roads above.
Inside US-Mexican Border Tunnel: Part Two
From there we headed west to visit the second tunnel referred to as “the big tunnel”. Its features were the same as the first, yet older and less welcoming. A member of our group sought comfort in a rodent-free experience; she received none. “No, no rats here” our guide answered. “We told them you were coming, so they all left.” I love this guy. He lifted the gate with a manual crank, then one-by-one we entered total darkness.
Flashlights revealed concrete walls marked with graffiti, a rocky terrain, and double yellow lines making the US-Mexican border. Our guide drew our attention patched holes indicative of smuggling. Tools used appeared to vary from spoons to saws. Breaches were reinforced with cement and plywood, then inscribed with the repair date.
In contrast to the US passages, Mexico’s path was rough and uneven. We heard water rushing overhead, much like the sound of a flushing toilet. When one gentleman commented on this, our guide replied, “that’s exactly what that is. You might want to stay away from the walls.” No sooner than when the group veered to the right, toilet water spewed to the left.
Passages varied in size from open and spacious, to cramped and hot. We declined an invitation to explore a crawl space that led to the underside of a cemetery. Had we accepted, we would have seen a corner of coffin piercing through the tunnel’s interior. Morbid curiosity almost won us over, but sanitation concerns prevailed. We were surprised to learn of a tunnel route that was discovered after a tour bus sank at the port of entry.
Inside US-Mexican Border Tunnel: Tunnel Life
The most intriguing part of the tour was a mural of a smiling skeleton. It spanned an entire panel of wall, and was pointing north as if daring us to enter.
Accepting its dare, we reached a campsite by way of discarded food containers, personal belongings, and human defecation. A ledge featured an altar with a menagerie of candles, a picture of a young man, and toy tractor. With a quiet respect, I approached the makeshift shrine for a closer look. During my reflection, I couldn’t help but notice that while the inhabitants were breaking the law, we held shared values of family and faith.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
The tour wrapped up after two hours. During that time, it was evident that underground operations show no signs of slowing down. Security efforts above ground only seem to encourage smugglers to build more sophisticated routes below. It is my hope that you will come away from this with a deeper understanding of the lengths being taken to exploit the border, and lawlessness behind it.
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Yours in Photography,
Monica Rojas is an American photojournalist currently living in Mexico. Her early work in the US focused on family portraiture, an interest that steered her towards documenting cultural diversity in Southeast Asia and throughout North America. Today, Rojas specializes in humanizing social issues, highlighting stories that draw attention to lesser known realities. Monica is recognized for her critical eye and unique approach to issues not often covered by mainstream media. In addition to working as a photographer, Monica works with NGOs and lectures embassies worldwide. Visit her WEBSITE, BLOG, and FACEBOOK for the most up to date reports.