He walked through the abandoned restaurant, his steps careful and cautious. Every sound echoing through the deserted building. Walking alone he listened to the dull thud of his boots on the tiled floors.
He entered the kitchen area, walking to the back of the kitchen, passing the deep-fat fryer. A feeling of apprehension settled over him. As he turned the corner he suddenly froze. His muscles tensed and his eyes widened as he saw the 8-inch hole. He knew that he needed to call for backup right away.
In his years working for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Officer John Erwin had seen all kinds of things. However, what he he had just discovered was not something he’d ever prepared for.
Everything started when H.S.I special agent Scott Brown had received an anonymous tip that the restaurant held more secrets than just the secret 11 herbs and spices. He reached out and put Erwin in charge the raid on the Arizona KFC restaurant.
KFC is well-known for being the second largest fast food empire in the world. It is second only to McDonald’s in sales. KFC has 20,000 locations worldwide, 4,500 of them in the US alone and it is clear that there is no slowing down in sight.
KFC draws many people to their restaurants annually, however, when Homeland Security started to take an interest in the San Luis, Arizona location of the franchise it had nothing to do with fried chicken. Even so, they never expected to find what they did.
Town locals used to flock to the store, a mere 200 yards from the border of Mexico to get their buckets of fried chicken and sides. However, the store mysteriously shut down one day and was simply left to deteriorate.
However, even after closing its doors, there were always cars parked in its parking lot. This was already strange in itself, but then people started reporting even more unusual activity around the supposedly closed restaurant.
It had been months since the restaurant had closed its doors when people started noticing lights on in the store late at night. Many locals were excited at the possibility of the store reopening soon.
People heard the sounds of drilling, hammering, and more going on inside the store. This naturally led people to believe that a revamp was happening inside. However, when the doors remained closed despite this, people became suspicious and rumors began to circulate.
Naturally, there were many different rumors surrounding the buildings. Some of the rumors claimed that a corporate giant had bought the property, while others held that it had been bought by a wealthy local man. As it would turn out, there was plenty of reason for talk.
However, the truth of what was happening in and around the store was much stranger than people expected. It took law enforcement months before they found all the pieces to unravel the mystery surrounding this building.
It was late one night when H.S.I special agent Scott Brown’s private cell phone started to ring. At first, he felt annoyed by being bothered so late in the evening. However, despite his annoyance, he decided to answer.
After he gave a short, gruff greeting and asked what the person wanted, the man on the other end of the line started to talk. Brown couldn’t believe the tip this person was providing, if it were true, but he knew he couldn’t waste time and got a warrant.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement immediately applied for a warrant which would allow them to search the supposedly abandoned KFC. As soon as it was granted a team of I.C.E agents, led by Officer John Erwin was dispatched to the scene.
However, once he had discovered the hole in the wall of the dusty abandoned building, Erwin knew he’d need backup. The team started to chip away at the wall, ultimately revealing a deep shaft. They had no idea what they had stumbled on.
Amazed by their discovery, Erwin pulled out his flashlight into the darkness. There it lit up hundreds of planks lining and supporting the walls of the shaft. As he played his torch around the shaft he noticed something at the bottom.
The team carefully decided down the shaft, ultimately reaching a dark tunnel. The tunnel which was about three wide and five feet would easily fit a person inside. Officer Erwin steadied his nerves and started walking down the tunnel.
The team followed Erwin into the tunnel. They moved slowly and quietly as they had no idea what they might face. They had no idea if there were armed enemies at the end or even how deep the passage actually went.
Everyone jumped when they suddenly heard the sound of footsteps suddenly disappearing. It was clear that they were not alone. However, they still didn’t know what lay ahead but they quickly realized what was going on.
It occurred to Officer Erwin in an instant — the tunnel was positioned to go under the Mexican border, straight into Mexico! At the end of the 600-yard-long passage, they came to a ladder that led to a trap door in the ceiling.
Officer John Erwin signaled for silence as they braced themselves for a moment. Then, he kicked through the trapdoor.
After swiftly breaking through the trapdoor, Officer Erwin cautiously peered out. Above him, he saw rusty bed springs. They would have to climb out to investigate. But when they did, they couldn’t believe their eyes. They had ended up underneath a bed in a Mexican home!
Then, Officer Erwin noticed the long rope next to the trapdoor’s entrance. But he didn’t have time to inspect it — someone was coming.
The officers heard footsteps echoing through the tunnel and saw the faint beam of a flashlight. They stood back and waited, and the man practically walked into them.
His eyes widened when he reached the top of the ladder and found himself surrounded by I.C.E. agents. He had a suitcase in his hand, which was promptly confiscated. What had been going on here?
The first piece of the puzzle had arrived by pure chance, just weeks prior to the discovery of the tunnel. Border police had pulled a man over for a routine traffic stop. After the usual questions, the man’s license and plates seemed to check out.
The officers were about to let the man go on his way when suddenly their service dog took one sniff at his trailer and went ballistic.
The officers searched the trailer and found two toolboxes. But when they cracked them open, they were floored. On closer inspection, both boxes contained illegal substances. The man, named Ivan Lopez, was immediately arrested.
But, delving deeper into the man’s history exposed a brazen operation that no one had seen coming. Lopez’s freedom had come to an end, but his legacy had just begun.
After Lopez’s arrest, H.S.I special agent Scott Brown received an unsettling phone call. The call was from an anonymous resident who gave him a reason to suspect that they were only just scratching the surface of Lopez’s crimes.
After some digging, Brown discovered that it was Lopez who had purchased the old KFC — for which he had paid $390,000 in cash. He immediately contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But was he fast enough?
After putting two and two together, It was clear to officials that the reason for this brazen under-border tunnel was to enable Lopez and his cohorts to smuggle contraband into the U.S from Mexico.
Indeed, Lopez’s confiscated toolboxes held narcotics worth around $1 million. But how had they gotten away with it?
Officials believe that, due to the tunnel’s size, the people involved in the trafficking would climb down through the trapdoor in the Mexican home and walk the 600-yard passageway until they were directly underneath the old KFC building.
They would then deposit the illicit substances and they would be lifted out with a rope through the 8-inch hole in the restaurant’s wall. But this tunnel isn’t the first one of its kind in Arizona…
“Tunnels are a time-consuming venture, but [they have] definitely increased since border security measures have ramped up,” H.S.I special agent Scott Brown said in a statement.
“One of the things that tunneling does tell us is that as we increase infrastructure, resources, patrol, that’s forcing them to go to more costly routes into the US,” he added.
Authorities believe that Lopez is a prominent member of the Mexican cartel. He is currently in prison without bail while he awaits criminal charges.
And while these cartel tunnels are becoming more common around the Mexican border, agent Scott Brown reveals that there was something particularly frightening about the KFC tunnel in Arizona.
According to Brown, all the substances authorities found were all “hard narcotics”. He said: “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.”
Meanwhile, Richard Jessup, the town’s Chief of Police told the Washington Post that the surge in tunnels is not surprising.
“Generally along the southwest border, every couple of months, we’re encountering a tunnel,” Jessup explained. “Of course, if you can’t go over the wall, you go under [it].”
And while most of these tunnels are left unfinished, some aren’t. And the KFC tunnel wasn’t the longest cartel tunnel by any means. 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 Arizona city with San Luis Rio Colorado in Mexico.
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.