What started as a traffic stop in the border town of San Luis, Arizona, has evolved into a million-dollar drug bust and the discovery of a cross-border drug tunnel at an abandoned KFC restaurant, authorities say.
Ivan Lopez, a resident of Yuma, Arizona, with a history of drunken driving and money laundering convictions, according to a federal complaint against him, was pulled over by a San Luis police officer on the evening of Aug. 13 for an “equipment violation.”
Police say they found 261 pounds of methamphetamine, 14 pounds of cocaine, 30 pounds of heroin and nearly 7 pounds of fentanyl in the trailer being pulled by Lopez’ pickup. That’s more than 3 million doses of fentanyl, which is widely considered the most dangerous opiate on the black market.
The street value of those drugs, according to the complaint, is $1,165,800.
“As a nation in the midst of an opioid crisis,” Special Agent Scott Brown said Wednesday at a news conference, that in itself would have been “a very significant seizure.” He added that the nearly $1.2 million was the value of the drugs in Yuma but noted that the street value only goes up in cities farther away from the border.
While Lopez was in jail, agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement got federal search warrants for all of his property, including the abandoned building at 552 San Luis Plaza Drive, which the complaint states Lopez bought in April for $390,000.
He paid cash for the abandoned KFC restaurant that sits about 200 yards north of the U.S.-Mexico border and the Mexican city of San Luis Colorado, according to the complaint.
“The structure was vacant in recent years and was not used for business,” the complaint reads.
When ICE’s Homeland Security Investigation agents searched the hollowed-out chicken shack, they found a hole in the floor, but there was no ladder or other way for people to get out through the hole, video released by ICE shows.
But once agents got down that entryway and into the 590-foot tunnel, which is about 5 feet tall, 3 feet wide and 22 feet deep, they saw the extensive design and labor that must have gone into its construction. Special Agent Scott Brown, of the Yuma sector of Homeland Security Investigation, said during a press conference Wednesday that law enforcement believes the smugglers used rope to pull up loads of drugs from the bottom of the tunnel’s U.S. entry point.
“This tunnel would take this drug trafficking organization a long time to construct and would have been very expensive,” the complaint reads. “Such an endeavor necessarily requires a combination of several individuals on both sides of the border, engaged in an intricate, risky transnational conspiracy to construct such a secretive structure.”
The tunnel is lined with 2-by-4s, along with thinner planks of wood that resemble fence posts, for almost the entirety of its 590-foot span, the video shows.
These tunnels, it continues, are almost always used for getting drugs — like the meth, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl Lopez was allegedly caught with — from Mexico to the U.S.
On the Mexican side of the tunnel, the “entry point was found at a residential compound, accessed through a trap door under a bed,” Brown said at the news conference.