Special Agent Has Tunnel Vision

Miguel Unzueta emerges from a tunnel used to move drugs from Tijuana to San Diego, discovered in January by his Immigration and Customs Enforcement team. Immigration issues now consume an increasing portion of his workload.
Miguel Unzueta emerges from a tunnel used to move drugs from Tijuana to San Diego, discovered in January by his Immigration and Customs Enforcement team. Immigration issues now consume an increasing portion of his workload. (By John Pomfret -- The Washington Post)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

SAN DIEGO -- Sometime in January, one of the men who works for Miguel "Mike" Unzueta, special agent in charge of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau in this salubrious southern Californian border city, got a tip. It seemed that drug smugglers had bored a tunnel from Tijuana across the border.

As with much of the intelligence generated by Unzueta's team of investigators, this tip provided specific information about what was going on in Mexico but scant detail about what was happening on the U.S. side of the line. "We were hearing rumors. The tom-toms started beating. People started talking, 'There's a tunnel.' The difficulty was to find it, to corroborate the rumor," Unzueta recalled.

By Jan. 23, Unzueta's agents had pinpointed the site of the tunnel in Tijuana, and Unzueta had passed on the information to Mexican counterparts. After a 36-hour wait for Mexican authorities to issue a search warrant, Mexican and U.S. lawmen entered the tunnel in Tijuana and, guns drawn, slid 80 feet below the surface of the earth and then groped their way 2,400 feet north only to pop out into the middle of a 50,000-square-foot warehouse in Otay Mesa, a suburb of San Diego.

The tunnel is known to the men and women of the ICE bureau in San Diego as "El Grande." Dug through a composite of clay and decomposing granite -- perfect for tunneling -- the shaft had electricity, a ventilation system, pumps to remove groundwater, concrete flooring for traction in steep areas, and wood roofing to bolster the walls and ceiling.

On the Mexican side of the line, authorities discovered two tons of marijuana. In the United States, agents found 300 pounds. Work had begun on a cold storage facility in the U.S. warehouse. Apparently the smugglers were planning to move narcotics around the United States in fruit and vegetable trucks. In subsequent weeks, Unzueta's agents arrested a Mexican man in connection with the warehouse and are seeking two others.

The uncovering of "El Grande," the longest and most sophisticated of the 21 underground passageways linking the United States and Mexico that have been discovered since Sept. 11, 2001, was another success in the career of Unzueta, 45, the grandson of Mexican migrant workers and a longtime federal agent.

Unzueta grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif., and started his career straight out of college with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He was posted to Spokane, Wash., in 1983 at the height of the Aryan Brotherhood and Nazi movements. In an area awash with explosives from the mining and timber industries, bombings were frequent and Unzueta learned to love the investigations, especially, he said, post-bombing reconstructions.

"I found that fascinating," he said in an interview at his office -- a round room on the seventh floor of a nondescript office building in downtown San Diego. "Back then, I would have done this job for free. Now I'm glad I get paid."

White supremacists bombed the house of a Catholic priest and set off four bombs at once in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, hoping to divert law enforcement's attention so they could raid the national armory there. (The plan failed.)

Despite the fun, Unzueta angled to return to California after a few years. Customs was hiring and Unzueta, with his fluent Spanish and law enforcement background, landed a job in 1987. Once in San Diego, he was assigned to Operation Alliance, a multi-agency narcotics task force. He spent the first three years mostly working undercover, buying stolen cars, guns and heroin in a storefront operation in the barrios of east San Diego.

He had shoulder-length hair, no love life to speak of, worked six days a week and loved it. For his undercover identity, he took the name Miguel Castaneda, a tip of the hat to Carlos Castaneda, the late Peruvian-born, peyote-munching bestselling author.

"For some reason, I had a knack for buying heroin," Unzueta said. "People just trusted me."


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