When Arizona Police Searched This Abandoned KFC, They Found A Secret Cartel Tunnel Hidden Inside

Image: Homeland Security Investigations/Yuma Sector BP via BBC News

As they walked through the dusty rooms of an abandoned KFC, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers probably had a good idea of what they would find inside. After all, by now, finding secret cross-border tunnels in Arizona is a regular occurrence. But this was not a normal tunnel – and what it was used for is of serious concern for officials.

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Fried chicken chain KFC is second only to McDonald’s when it comes to global fast food sales. In fact, it was among the first American chains to franchise internationally. Now it has nearly 20,000 stores all around the world, with almost 4,500 of those in the U.S. alone. But franchising stores doesn’t always work out. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see restaurants close – no matter how successful their parent companies.

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Once upon a time, you could grab a bucket of fried chicken within sight of Mexico in the city of San Luis, Arizona. But for reasons unknown, that KFC store closed several years ago. However, it’s location, just 200 yards away from the American/Mexican border, means that the abandoned building remains in a notable spot.

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It may have come as no surprise, then, when the Department of Homeland Security’s Investigations division received a tip about the abandoned restaurant in April 2018. Indeed, the information they received suggested that there was a tunnel going directly into the old KFC joint. As a result, the local authorities began monitoring the building’s owner, Ivan Lopez.

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Fast forward a few months, and the border police pulled Lopez over on a routine traffic stop. A sniffer dog pointed them in the direction of his trailer, where they found a pair of toolboxes. And each was filled with illegal substances. This discovery, then, drew the officers’ attention to the abandoned KFC that Lopez owned.

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Image: YouTube/TODAY’S TMJ4

The officers quickly discovered that Lopez had bought the KFC building back in April 2018. In total, it cost $390,000 – which he had paid in cash. As things began to look suspicious, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents applied for a search warrant for the defunct fast food restaurant.

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Image: Homeland Security Investigations/Yuma Sector BP via BBC News

Armed with the warrant, the I.C.E. agents made their way into the one-time KFC. And when they reached the kitchen, they found something distinctly out of the ordinary: an eight-inch hole in the wall. Upon closer inspection – and using some effort to chip away the area around the opening – they realized that the hole led to a shaft.

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Image: Homeland Security Investigations/Yuma Sector BP via BBC News

It wasn’t long, then, before they’d discovered the true purpose of the opening: it was a tunnel to Mexico. Indeed, the shaft led down into a passageway that stretched to nearly 600 feet. On either side, hundreds of planks of wood shored up the walls, creating what was ostensibly a sophisticated underground path.

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Image: Facebook/Yuma County Sheriff’s Office

In fact, at three feet wide and five feet tall, the tunnel was so big that a person could walk right through it. And if they did, starting at the opening in the restaurant, they’d end up in a home in Mexico, on the other side of the border. More specifically, they’d find themselves at a trapdoor underneath it.

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Image: Facebook/Yuma County Sheriff’s Office

The apparent reason for this cross-border tunnel was one familiar to the authorities. Indeed, it’s believed that the tunnel was used for smuggling narcotics, partly because of the illegal drugs found on Lopez. Indeed, the value of the contents of the toolboxes totaled around $1 million.

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Image: Customs and Border Protection via Arizona Public Media

Due to the tunnel’s size, authorities believe that the individuals involved in drug trafficking would climb down through the trap door in Mexico, walk the length of the passage and deposit the narcotics at the other end. Then, the drugs would supposedly be lifted through the tiny opening in the abandoned KFC with a rope.

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This isn’t the first tunnel of its kind, of course. Indeed, H.S.I. special agent Scott Brown told the Associated Press in August 2018, “Tunnels are a time-consuming venture, but [they have] definitely increased since border security measures have ramped up.” Brown also pointed out that increases in “infrastructure, resources [and] patrols” have forced smugglers to look toward these “costly” tunnels.

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Indeed, a serviceable tunnel can take eye-watering amounts of money and manpower to construct. According to Brown, cartels can spend into the hundreds of thousands building the tunnels. And it’s not a quick job either, requiring an extensive number of hours to build each one.

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The government believes that Lopez, the man arrested in conjunction with the KFC tunnel, is a prominent cartel member. He’s also considered likely to attempt to flee from justice. Indeed, legal documents say that he’s being held in prison, without any kind of bail offering, while awaiting criminal charges.

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Even if tunnels are generally becoming more common, there was a difference with this particular underground passageway. Indeed, the substances that authorities seized in relation to it were all “hard narcotics,” according to Brown. “I think that’s what makes this tunnel a little unique and, frankly, a little more scary than some of the other ones we’ve seen,” he said.

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Meanwhile, Richard Jessup, the town’s Chief of Police told the Washington Post that the surge in tunnels is not surprising. After all, San Luis is Arizona’s largest border city, and a pair of huge fences, measuring 20-feet tall, block above-ground access. “Of course, if you can’t go over the wall, you go under [it],” he said.

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Image: Facebook/Yuma County Sheriff’s Office

Indeed, according to the UK’s Independent newspaper, authorities have uncovered around 200 tunnels over the past three decades. In fact, the KFC tunnel was the fifth of its kind in that region alone since 2007. Brown told the Washington Post, “Generally along the southwest border, every couple of months, we’re encountering a tunnel.”

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While most of these tunnels are left unfinished, some aren’t. Indeed, every now and then officers discover a passageway that’s outfitted with concrete flooring, ventilation systems and even power lines. But they can be easy to spot. Indeed, all the earth that’s excavated to make them has to go somewhere, after all. And a large deposit can lead officers straight to the source.

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Yes, the KFC tunnel certainly wasn’t the first of its kind. In 2016, agents discovered a tunnel in San Diego, California that was nearly half a mile long, ending in Tijuana, Mexico. And it’s even not the first to start in San Luis, either. Indeed, a case from 2012 found a passageway that linked the Arizona city with San Luis Rio Colorado in Mexico.

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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. And, of course, because a secret cartel tunnel isn’t exactly the first thing you think of when you picture KFC…

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