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Super Tunnels: The Significance of Sophisticated Passages Below the Southwest Border

The nearly 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico symbolizes much of what is dissatisfying about the practical realities of this nation’s security challenges. The legitimate goal of open gateways to promote commerce clashes with the

need to stop the north- and southbound flow of contraband. This head-on collision gives rise to complex layers of issues and vulnerabilities that leaders concede can only be disrupted and slowed rather than solved. Thus, illicit cross-border tunnels are merely symptomatic of larger problems.

Approximately 140 subterranean tunnels have been discovered below the U.S.-Mexico border since May 1990. Notably, more than seventy percent of that total was discovered since the 2006 start of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s aggressive crackdown on organized crime. Efforts grew more stringent north of the border as well, with Department of Homeland Security agents finding tunnels as often as one per month.

Increasingly, authorities accustomed to finding shallow burrows into existing non-operational gas lines or waterways with storm drain exits now find passages complete with ventilation, electricity, rail tracks, and hydraulic lifts. The significance of these recent discoveries is not increased quantity, but increased sophistication. The technological advancements of these super tunnels, according to officials, are likely the product of untold sums of drug cartel money.

The cartels have upped the ante by enlisting professional experts for design and construction. This added expertise contributes to the overall effectiveness of tunnel smuggling by frustrating detection efforts. Not only are the tunnels deeper, they can also be constructed faster —even through solid rock. The seizure of nearly fifty tons of narcotics during the discovery of just two tunnels in November 2011 alone suggests that, for now, the cartels believe in their tunnel investments.

Whether these super tunnels should be cause for heightened alarm remains to be seen. It could be that this merely represents a shift in the mode of transportation rather than a marked increase in the total quantity of narcotics crossing the border. This will likely remain a point of speculation in light of the difficulties of accurately tracking illicit activity; however, there should be little doubt that umpteen tons have already traversed the passages and will probably continue to do so in a steady stream.

Now that the threat and novelty of the super tunnels are readily apparent, lawmakers may finally—after several failed attempts—have the momentum needed to take action. Congress appears at least interested in trying again. The Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2011 is in early stages in both houses, but the Senate Judiciary Committee passed S. 1236 by a voice vote last in December. The House version of the bill, H.R. 2264, is still under committee consideration.

If passed, the Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2011 would not only criminalize the construction and use of illicit cross-border tunnels, it would also penalize landowners who allow their property to be used in the tunneling process. More controversially, the measure would also expand wiretap authority for prosecutors—even in the absence of actual contraband ordinarily required. Similar previous measures have died in committee but the boldness behind the super tunnels may prove a galvanizing force in updating the legal tools necessary to combat the tunnel threat.

The 2012 elections in both the United States and Mexico could also impact the legislative process. Mexico’s single-term limit on its presidency means new leadership in Mexico is certain within the year. This is particularly significant in terms of southwest border security efforts because incumbent Felipe Calderon is known for his aggressive initiative in fighting organized crime in Mexico. It was President Calderon’s initiative that resulted in the Merida Initiative which has fortified Mexico’s law enforcement efforts against cartels through provisions of training, equipment, and advice. The United States surely does not want to suffer the loss of such an ally in bilateral border control efforts.

At least one candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, appears attentive to concerns and ready to face the fight. Some speculate that Mexican citizens, weary from increased

tension and violence associated with stricter law enforcement of the last five years, may not be so inclined to continue the struggle. Either way, while we watch and wait, it may prove to be an ideal time to ensure that this country is prepared with appropriate legal tools to anticipate the additional challenges that the super tunnels may bring.

Photo obtained from


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