In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) introduced this bill to expedite the approval of processes that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents need to go through to destroy tunnels at the border used for illegal crossings and the transportation of narcotics:
“We need to ensure our border patrol agents have the tools necessary to efficiently and effectively remove illegal access to our country. Waiting for environmental reviews of drug tunnels that have already disturbed the ground and will ultimately be filled with concrete is unnecessary and threatens our national security. Last October, I visited the Southern Border and spoke directly with CBP agents in Nogales, Arizona. The burdensome process for filling illegal tunnels was a top concern. An agent explained that once a tunnel was found, it could take months to get through the environmental reviews necessary to block it.”
As an example of the delays these approvals can cause, Rep. Hartzler cited the example of a tunnel in the Rio Grande Valley. The tunnel was found on January 5, 2019 but wasn’t filled until nearly four months later, on April 22, 2019.
Scott Brown, a special agent in the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division, says tunnel activity has increased since border security was tightened in the 2000s:
“Tunnels are a time consuming venture but [their incidence] has definitely increased since the border security measures have ramped up. One of the things that tunnelling does tell us, is that as we increase infrastructure, resources, patrol – that’s forcing them to go to more costly routes into the US.”
Mike Vigil, the former head of international operations at the DEA, says the “U.S.-Mexico border is literally riddled with tunnels. [Drug cartels] have to move those drugs across the border and probably the most secure method is through the use of tunnels.” Vigil estimates that for every tunnel authorities find, about 10 go undetected. He calls tunnels a smuggling method with an “average lifespan [that[ could be perpetual… unless you have specific information from a human source, or there’s unusual activity detected that would warrant a closer look,” and argues that tunnels are “a smuggling method that will probably continue and probably increase in the future, especially with the increased border patrols and the surveillance that is taking place along the border."
This legislation has 22 Republican cosponsors.
Of Note: The first cross-border tunnel was discovered in May 1990, and the number of tunnels increased dramatically in 2001. According to ICE, 152 tunnels were discovered from 2001-2011. Smuggling groups use tunnels to move drugs, guns, and people who want to sneak across the U.S. border. Experts say sophisticated tunnels are mostly used for drug and gun smuggling, though people who don’t want to risk travelling above ground will also occasionally be smuggled through these tunnels as well. Cocaine and methamphetamine are brought into the U.S. through tunnels, but marijuana is the most prevalent drug transported through the tunnels.
During the U.S. trial of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, witnesses described how Guzman used tunnels dug under the border and fake jalapeño cans to smuggle tons of cocaine into the U.S. from the 1990s to early 2000s.
In May 2019, Lance Lenoir, Director of Logistics in San Francisco for CBP, noted the scale of the problem. He said, “In San Diego alone, we have discovered 70 cross border tunnels. 36 of those are of the sophisticated kind. We’ve seen them as long as 3,000 feet.”
When border tunnels are found, the Confined Spaces Entry Team (also known as the “Tunnel Rats”) within CBP is responsible for destroying them. To boost tunnel detection and mapping efforts, Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate is looking to send robots into underground tunnels and other places where its sensors can’t communicate in order to map and document (through photos and videos) hard-to-reach places.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB via Flickr / Creative Commons)