Senators warn of a growing border security issue: tunnels

There is a growing concern in the Senate that tunnels dug by Mexican drug cartels to traffic illicit goods into the country could be used to smuggle terrorists or weapons of mass destruction.

Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair and vice-chair of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, are stepping up congressional efforts to combat the growing use of tunnels along the southwest border.

Eleven tunnels - used to smuggle drugs, money, weapons, and in some cases people -  have been discovered so far this year, bringing the total number of tunnels found by law enforcement authorities since 2001 up to 125. The majority of the tunnels have been found in southern California and Arizona.

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As Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have ramped up security efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border over the past decade, drug cartels have been forced to dig underground tunnels in an attempt to smuggle illicit materials in and out of the U.S. Only 12 tunnels were found between 1990 and 2001.

“They can be used to transport drugs across the border, they could be used to smuggle a terrorist or terrorists into the United States,” said Feinstein at a hearing on the issue this week.

To illustrate the seriousness of the problem, Grassley pointed to the April prison break in Afghanistan in which Taliban militants dug a 1,050-foot long tunnel into a prison over the course of five months and freed 480 inmates. The senator said that the Department of Defense has started to take more interest in tunneling efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border as a result.

Some of the recently discovered tunnels along the U.S. border show an increased level of sophistication and dedication similar to what was used in Afghanistan. 

In one 2,200-foot tunnel discovered by authorities last November, smugglers installed electricity, ventilation and a rail car system to assist them in ferrying their illicit goods across the border. The entrance on the Mexico side of the border was concealed under a hydraulic steel door in the kitchen of a house. And on the U.S. side of the border, the tunnel exited into a warehouse in southern California. Officials estimated it cost $1 million to build.

To try to combat the growing use of tunnels, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) established tunnel task forces with agents and officers from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in San Diego, Nogales, El Paso, Yuma and Imperial Valley.

But Feinstein said more action was needed. She plans to introduce a bill that would make the use, construction, or financing of a border tunnel a conspiracy offense. The legislation would also allow law enforcement officials to gain Title III wiretaps if they suspect the existence or use of a tunnel, even without the suspected presence of drugs or other contraband.

“This would punish the intent to engage in tunnel activity, even in cases where the tunnel might not have been fully constructed because the only reason to build the tunnel is to avoid the authorities so that means you have to be going to commit a criminal event,” she said.