NOGALES, Ariz. - Landlord Vanessa Garcia visits her rental homes in this border town nearly every month.
She usually inspects the properties at the same time she has pest-control service performed. But while she's there she's not looking for insects - but large holes in the floor.
Here in the tunnel capital of the U.S.-Mexico border, landlords have to be on the lookout for tenants who use the homes as exit points for underground passages used to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the United States.
Garcia became especially worried in May after a landlord discovered a 30-foot-long tunnel that came out in a house on the same hillside area where she has a house for rent.
"I'm kind of scared it might happen to mine," said Garcia, who lives in Nogales. "We're constantly checking. We haven't found one yet."
The majority of tunnels found in Nogales connect to an underground drainage system that crosses the border. But occasionally, smugglers dig passageways that come out in a home or building separate of the drainage system.
A discovery in May was the most recent example of tunnels uncovered in Nogales rental homes in the past several years. The tunnels often run from a home or business in Mexico to a house in the United States within about a two-mile stretch of the border, according to Kevin Kelly, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations in Nogales.
They are most common in Nogales, but have been found in Douglas, too. In August, authorities discovered a 25-foot-long tunnel in a rental home in the Southeastern Arizona border town.
For landlords in the area, the possibility of finding a tunnel can pose great concerns.
"It was kind of shocking," said Nogales landlord Laura Corral regarding the tunnel found in May. "Sometimes people have rental houses here and move to Tucson or Phoenix. They don't know what people are doing."
Corral has rented out a home in Nogales for about two years, which she estimates is about 150 feet from the border. She has reconsidered her relaxed policies in choosing tenants after a man recently rented the house and deserted it after a month, she said.
"I was kind of suspicious," Corral said. "Maybe he was looking for something more."
Landlords like Sonia Espinoza try to protect their properties with prevention. Espinoza, who lives in Phoenix, has been renting out a home near the border in Nogales for about two months and checks on the property most weeks.
She requires a copy of a driver's license from her tenants to give to police in case there is a problem, she said. Espinoza also sends her mother, a Nogales resident, to regularly check on the property.
"House-to-house" tunnels are discovered about as often as those found in abandoned buildings, the street or other locations, Kelly said. The tunnels are more intricate and require more time to construct than other types of tunnels.
"You're kind of limited," Kelly said. "But necessity is the mother of invention."
Rental houses are often used for tunnel construction because people arranging illegal transactions do not have the money to buy a house or know the government can seize it if they are caught, Kelly said. Landlords are often the informants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in these cases, he said.
Landlords are not held responsible for tunnels found on their properties unless it can be proved that they were involved, Kelly said. The Border Patrol normally seals the tunnel with concrete and sometimes uses the assistance of the city of Nogales Public Works Department, according to Juan Guerra, city engineer and acting director for the department.
"Normally they try to minimize the impact to the city," he said.
Tunnels are just one way that real estate business on the border is affected by illegal activity, said Nogales native Nanci Pottinger, owner of Noginan Real Estate. Pottinger has worked in real estate in Santa Cruz County for 10 years and has about 70 rental properties, she said.
She once listed a house several years ago and had to disclose that the fireplace was sealed with concrete due to a previous tunnel. Another time, a buyer made an offer for one of her homes but saw it featured on the National Geographic TV show "Border Wars" for housing illegal immigrants and retracted the bid, Pottinger said.
Pottinger has a strict application process that includes the ability to perform background and credit checks on potential renters. Behavior such as paying a deposit in cash can raise red flags, she said.
"I get a gut feeling sometimes," Pottinger said. "If I have a reason to be concerned, I'll just pass."
On StarNet: Find more on SB 1070, border deaths, deportations and other immigration-related news at azstarnet.com/border
Tracking the tunnels
Tunnels found in U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector
FY 2005 3
FY 2006 4
FY 2007 10
FY 2008 14
FY 2009 20
FY 2010 7
FY 2011 12*
* Through August
Brenna Goth is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at email@example.com or 573-4213.