nogales city officials in front of flood house

Nogales, Arizona city officials review the affected area in front of the house where the drug tunnel was found


On a quiet Sunday afternoon in Nogales, Arizona, the day after Independence Day, murky water began to flow from a small house on Morley Avenue, about a mile north of the international border. The flood's intensity continued to increase into the evening, as a torrent of thousands of gallons of the smelly brown effluent forced itself under the house's front door, onto its porch and into the street and surrounding areas.

Although there was some furniture in the house at 470 N. Morley Avenue, apparently nobody lived there, and its owner lives in California. The cottage had most recently been used by the Crossroads Nogales Mission as its "New Life Center," a women's and children's shelter with residents from both sides of the border. It was closed when the mission relocated the shelter to a new location in Nogales, Arizona last December.

nogales crossroads mission shelter

Happier days for the house, when the yellow tape was used to guide parents and children to their Christmas presents

The water that flooded the small house had come from a breach in the International Outflow Interceptor (IOI), a 24-inch-diameter main sewer line that takes nearly all of the waste water from the city of Nogales, Mexico across the border underground through Nogales, Arizona and on to a sewage treatment plant in the nearby town of Rio Rico, Arizona. The IOI is funded jointly by the cities of Ambos Nogales and the federal International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).

City workers were able to stop the flow of the sewage in the house by diverting the wastewater from the interceptor pipe into the Nogales Wash, an arroyo that carries rainwater and other above-ground water overflow from Mexico through the city of Nogales, and fire department crews were on the scene Monday morning to clean up the mess. Two miles south of the dirty water's diversion point, city workers re-established a connection between the sewage in the Nogales Wash and the underground interceptor that sucked the effluent flowing in the arroyo down like a swirling bathtub drain, back into the IOI that carries it to the treatment plant in Rio Rico.

When officials were able to enter the house they found a ladder leading to the basement, where a short tunnel had been dug under Morley Avenue to access the IOI. Some of the concrete that encases the sewer line had been removed to provide access to the conduit, which had been cut open.

After opening the site, they found a variety of tools and equipment, to include a rack that had been used to retrieve bundles of marijuana from the interceptor. A camera snaked into the pipe on Monday evening showed bundles of drugs, and on Tuesday evening they retrieved bundles of marijuana weighing nearly 60 lbs. from the sewer pipe.

This is not the first time the IOI has been used for international drug smuggling, and it is a filthy but direct way to transport drugs. The way it works is that someone in Nogales, Mexico puts the product into the sewer interceptor, where the sewage flow carries it under the border to a point where it is retrieved on the U.S. side.

nogales morley drug tunnel street scene

Two days after the incident, Morley Avenue is still closed as city administrators review options

The trick for smugglers is to find a safe retrieval point, create the access to the pipeline and time the transport with the ebbs and flows of the system. An official I spoke with told me that smugglers can breach the interceptor and then coordinate the transport of the drugs at a time when the effluent flow is low. For example, most people take showers and use the bathroom in the morning, so there is a higher flow of wastewater that would make access and retrieval more difficult. Later in the day, the lower flow levels may be more conducive to transport.

Perhaps more disgusting than the sewer-based trafficking itself is the potential health threats to local residents who have to deal with the stench and may come in contact with bacteria from the spill, and the immense cost that the City of Nogales will need to bear to deal with this. And it will not be the last time.


Photos of Sewage in the Nogales Wash