EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Migrants have been using tunnels and storm drains to elude capture by the U.S. Border Patrol since at least the 1960s, according to El Paso historian Fred Morales.

“People don’t know about it, but it has been going on for quite a while. They don’t use them often because they are very narrow. It’s a last resort,” Morales said.

Concrete fills, the placement of heavy grates and an increased Border Patrol presence at the Rio Grande substantially cut down the practice – until now.

The agency reports an increase in encounters with migrants who come over the border wall and use the drains to hide or try to squeeze through an underground network of 24- to 36-inch pipes leading to street-level manhole covers. The El Paso Fire Department last week used a metal-cutting saw to rescue 17 migrants the Border Patrol detected trapped under a grate in South El Paso.

“We have seen an increase in activity over the last couple of years and especially over the past few months,” said Brian McQuality, a veteran Border Patrol agent and member of the Confined Space Entry Team. “We have storm drain systems that go all the way to the (Rio Grande) and are enclosed the entire way – from the time they enter at the river until the time they exit on the north side. We have people who enter those tunnels on a weekly basis.”

An El Paso firefighter uses a metal-cutting tool to allow 17 trapped migrants to come up from under a storm drain in South El Paso. (CBP photo)

The grates and the danger of drowning, injury or getting stuck underground should be deterrents but are not. McQuality on Tuesday stood next to a display of bolt cutters, hacksaws, crowbars and other tools used by smugglers to open the way for the migrants under their care to get into the drains. Whether or not their charges come out alive or uninjured is not a concern for the smugglers.

“On occasion, the smugglers will use minor children as guides. But, oftentimes, they will leave them at their entry point at the river and the smugglers will return south. (The migrants) simply receive instructions to keep moving north and to make contact when they come out of their exit,” McQuality said.

Border Patrol Agent Brian McQuality stands next to rescue equipment used by the Close Space Entry Team, and also some tools used by smugglers to break through grates placed on storm drains in El Paso. (Border Report photo)

The drug cartels that also control the migrant smuggling activity on the border recruit Mexican teenagers to lead their clients into El Paso. The sales pitch is they will not be prosecuted because of their age. That may be true in Mexico, but not in the U.S. “They can still be charged with (smuggling),” McQuality said.

Tunnels can be a death trap for migrants

Members of the Confined Space Entry Team on Tuesday gave Border Report a tour through some of the storm drains with the most migrant activity in West El Paso. Some are big enough to fit a truck through and empty into an arroyo that drains into the Rio Grande. Others are a few feet off the ground and force the migrants to crawl upwards 50 feet or more to street level near Interstate 10.

Reaching the tunnels requires a hike through rocks, weeds, sand and concrete overflows that easily can lead to falls. The entrance is littered with half-filled water bottles, empty soda cans, discarded muddy clothes and even an abandoned sleeping bag. The tunnels seem massive at first, but they get progressively narrower under the interstate. During a rainstorm, they can become death traps.

“When it’s raining, the fast-moving water can engulf you in seconds,” said Efren Mercado, a 15-year veteran of the Border Patrol and a member of the Confined Space Entry Team for 10. “The terrain is very hazardous and migrants have no idea (what they’re getting into) most of the time.”

CSET members have received training to pull people out of confined spaces and render aid when they are injured. The team uses ropes, harnesses and other tools to rescue migrants stuck in tunnels.

“It’s an absolutely necessary team. You need specialized training to go in there. Not any regular agent can just go in, and it’s very satisfying when there’s children involved,” Mercado said.

He has seen his share of fatalities over the years.

“A couple of years ago we had two smugglers in the tunnels. It got to a point that (the tunnel) was filled with water, so they got an electrical generator to pump water out. A few hours later they went back to refill the generator and the air was full of carbon monoxide and they perished,” Mercado said.

Members of the U.S. Border Patrol Confined Spaces Entry Team prepare to enter a storm drain in West El Paso under Interstate 10.

Team members carry air-quality monitoring devices to avoid these perils themselves and to intervene when warranted.

“We don our safety gear, make contact with people, make sure they’re physically OK, that they’re able to exit safely,” McQuality said. “We have some open areas such as this one, and we have other storm drain systems that go all the way to the river and are enclosed the entire way.”

Those tunnels are the most dangerous, team members said.

“My advice? Not to enter the tunnels,” said Border Patrol Agent Felix Alicea, CSET member since 2009. “Think about the danger, think about your family, your children. Don’t listen to the smuggler; just don’t do it.”