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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. This morning we bring you a story out of Tijuana, Mexico. It's about a man who has been in the city's prison for the past year.

GREENE: Last February, he and 16 other men were caught digging an underground drug smuggling tunnel headed for San Diego, California. They claim they were kidnapped and forced to dig the illicit passageway. Since 2008 more than 75 tunnels have been found.

MONTAGNE: Tunnel diggers are thought to be well paid cartel loyalists, or, as urban legend has it, laborers killed soon after tunnels are complete to ensure secrecy. NPR's Carrie Kahn was able to talk to one of those tunnel diggers who lived to tell his the story and to tell how he was enslaved just feet from the U.S. border for months.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATES SHUTTING)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: I met the man at Tijuana's infamous prison, La Mesa, one of the most overcrowded in Mexico. Built for 2,600 prisoners, it now houses more than 7,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIR MOVING)

KAHN: I'm told to wait in a small room next to the warden's office, where earlier I was told not to ask too many probing questions. This is a delicate case, the warden told me. It touches a lot of powerful people in the city. The tunnels under Tijuana are thought to be built by the Mexico's most powerful drug organization, the Sinaloa cartel. The group, led by Joaquin Chapo Guzman, is one of the few with the expertise and plenty of money, on average about $2 million, to build one of the underground wonders.

Buenos dias. Buenos dias.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How are you?

KAHN: (Unintelligible) Carrie.

After about 10 minutes guards escort in a short man dressed in the prison's standard grey sweat pants and t-shirt. His hair is closely cropped. His accent is thick, like most rural farmers from Mexico's northern states. He asks me if he's in any danger if he tells me his story. I say I really don't know, only he can weigh that risk, but I promise not to use his name. He starts to tell me his story, which begins that back in the winter of 2012 just four miles from this prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

KAHN: Tijuana's Mesa de Otay neighborhood sits high on a bluff hugging the international border and the huge commercial crossing into San Diego, California. Eighteen wheelers barrel down the wide streets, packed with everything from TVs to small medical devices assembled in Tijuana's foreign owned factories. Warehouses line the dusty boulevards, some with signs, others without even a street number.

I'm standing in front of the warehouse about a quarter of a mile from the border where the jailed tunnel digger says he was brought to in November of 2012. The warehouse is abandoned now. Nobody is around. It still even has crime scene tape and a padlock on the front door. But back then it blended in well on this busy street where the truck traffic moves in and out of the neighborhood warehouses. You could see how loud noises either coming from inside or deep underground would be masked by all the activity above.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish)

KAHN: The tunnel digger says he was tricked into going there. He was working day jobs until he had a fight with his wife. He picked up and left and decided to head north to San Diego for a while, to cool off and make some money - an illegal trip he had made many times before. He rented a room in a rough neighborhood in Tijuana - an easy place to find a smuggler.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) I was drinking a soda at this little store in front of the room I was renting and this guy, who I had talked with a few times before, drives by. He says, hey, I found someone to take you to the other side. Do you have someone in the U.S. with money? I told him yes, but I wasn't ready to go yet. I wanted to patch things up with my wife first.

(Through translator) He said look, come with me now and I'll show you our safe house, so you know where to go when you're ready. We'll get some tacos and I'll bring you right back, no problem.

KAHN: The tunnel digger climbed in but says the man, identified in court documents only as Carlillos, took him to a warehouse, not a home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) I turned to him and said, hey, this isn't a house, this is a warehouse. Someone rolled up the huge metal door and we drove in. A pickup truck pulled in behind us and then I heard the door come down. Six guys jumped out of the truck. They had ski masks on and rifles. They threw me to the ground and started beating me up, threatening me. I wanted to run but there was nowhere to go. They told me what I was going to do, and if I didn't, they will kill me.

KAHN: Just over the border fence in San Diego sit hundreds of warehouses. Tucked into back offices and even in bathrooms, federal officials have found the exit doors for Tijuana's tunnels.

Joe Garcia is a federal agent on San Diego's Border Tunnel task force. His group has discovered some of the biggest underground passageways found in the region, including last year's so-called Super Tunnel which stretched 600 yards. Eight and a half tons of marijuana and more than 300 pounds of cocaine were stuffed inside. And Garcia says the tunnels are sophisticated and quite a feat to dig without heavy machinery, which is too noisy and too big for the narrow passageways.

JOE GARCIA: It's good old fashioned hard, manual labor. These guys are filling buckets or sandbags of Earth and are moving them either completely out, or putting them somewhere else in the tunnel. So it's hard, hard work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) We worked in 12-hour shifts from six to six. I worked the night shift with six other guys. There was this red laser beam we had to follow. Right down the middle. If we went crooked or off a bit, the men with the ski masks would come down and beat us. We had to dig three meters every day. If we didn't they told us we were lazy and beat us.

KAHN: The digger said he never saw anyone's face except Carlillos and the man who brought them food. Some days the man with the food didn't come. After two months, they had dug about 200 yards and it was getting harder to breath in the tunnel. The men in the ski masks brought in tubing and pumped in oxygen.

It was nearly February and at this rate the tunnel would reach a San Diego warehouse in plenty of time before Baja California's marijuana harvest was ready to pick.

JOSE MARIO VEGA HERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Jose Mario Vega Hernandez of Mexico's Defense Department, SEDENA, told me it was an anonymous tip that lead authorities to the tunnel on February 4th, 2013. The tunnel digger says he was asleep when the soldiers came in. He was so happy to see them. All the men rushed to thank them. They told the soldiers they were being held against their will.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: He says the soldiers told them to be quiet and forced them to the ground. They were arrested and taken to prison. The men, all 17, were given one public defender. In their declarations, obtained by NPR, their stories are the same. The man known as Carlillos either promised them work, or help to get across the border illegally.

In the year they've been in jail, several of the men I've spoken to say they've rarely seen their attorney. He refused to speak with me. His supervisor declined to be recorded but said it is a complicated case, and their lawyer is giving the best defense possible. She added though that his case load numbers in the hundreds.

Like the warden of the prison, Jose Mario Vega Hernandez, of Mexico's Defense Department, says he's heard others accused of drug crimes claim kidnapping.

HERNANDEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Vega said the men have a lot of evidence against them. Ten kilos of marijuana were found at the warehouse. The men face up to 35 years in prison.

The tunnel digger says he never saw marijuana in the warehouse except on the day the army arrived. His family, who live hundreds of miles away say they feel helpless. They have little money and can't visit or hire a private attorney. But they say they are glad he's alive. The tunnel digger says in those months underground he was convinced the men in the ski masks were going to kill him once the passageway was complete. In a business as risky as this, witnesses are a liability.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Now he says he thinks about how he might be in this prison for the rest of my life. He's glad to be alive but says it's not fair it's just not right.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tijuana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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