New law targets drug tunnel landlords

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New law targets drug tunnel landlords

CREATED Jun 18, 2012

Reporter: Craig Smith

NOGALES, Ariz (KGUN9-TV) - A new Federal law could leave landlords on the hook if the house they rent out ends up part of a drug tunnel. That's a big issue in Nogales where smugglers often use tunnels to bring in their product. 

In real estate it's all about location, location, location. Drug smugglers know parts of Nogales are prime places to rent houses to use as part of smuggling tunnels. Now a new Federal law holds landlords responsible if they knowingly allow someone to dig up their property to deliver drugs.

Smugglers will dig long, sometimes very elaborate tunnels to get their drugs through.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada knows of about 80 tunnels since authorities found their first one about 17 years ago.

He hopes the new law will make landlords turn away renters who show some classic warning signs.

The Sheriff says, "If the people that are renting are from Mexico possibly and can't give you any prior information where they resided, probably paying cash on a regular basis and probably willing to pay more than anybody else."

You may have a house to rent and may be thinking, I don't have to worry about tunnels, my house is a good distance from the border. Maybe you do have to worry. Sheriff Estrada says he knows of at least one tunnel house that was about a mile away from the border. How did they do it? They tapped into the drainage canals that cross in from Mexico so they didn't really have to do a mile's worth of digging."

Realtor Nanci Pottinger of Noginan Real Estate knows how careful landlords must be. She says some years ago she rented a house to someone who passed a thorough background check then turned it over to smugglers who used it as a stash house for illegal immigrants.

KGUN9 reporter Craig Smith asked: "So they were a front, they were a straw renter?"

Nanci Pottinger: Yes when we took legal measures we called the Sheriff and Border Patrol they took it over from that point and said that happens predominantly that they'll get paid maybe 3500 dollars to be the person signing and making the lease happen."

She says since then she's added extra safeguards like requiring tenants to agree to let her inspect the property on short notice.

The law does not apply to a stash house situation, it strictly applies to property used for tunnels.

The law notes that in parts of California the Department of Homeland Security is already educating landowners about how they can help stop smugglers from digging tunnels. The law directs DHS to extend that to other areas where tunnels can be common.