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Report: Number of drug smuggling tunnels surged after U.S. government tightened border security

April 12, 2017  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Report: Number of drug smuggling tunnels surged after U.S. government tightened border security

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President Trump’s wall won’t stop Mexican drug cartels from transporting illegal narcotics into the United States through illicit drug smuggling tunnels, which significantly increased after a border fence was constructed and security was tightened, a U.S. government report indicated.

“Illegal tunneling on the southwest border represents a significant and persistent threat to security and will likely remain so in the future,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) office said in a 2010 statement that only went public on April 2, 2017.

“The rise in tunneling is likely a response to heightened border security,” the report said.

Information on tunnels constructed since 2010 is scarce, but the number has undoubtedly increased, according to Lance Lenoir, the supervisor of the U.S. Border Patrol Entry Team in San Diego.

Moreover, Homeland Security’s Inspector General (IG) referred to the tunnels as “a significant homeland security vulnerability” in a report published in 2012, stating that “law enforcement has recovered approximately 169,000 pounds of narcotics, valued at over $200 million, from drug traffickers using tunnels.”

Secret tunnels from Mexico to the U.S. are used to smuggle drugs, guns, and peopleImage courtesy of the DEA

Officials had discovered 146 tunnels as of 2010, 62 of which were finished. Another 67 were identified before completion, the Daily Caller reported.

“Tunnel activity has been on the rise since the first discovery in 1990, though the trend has accelerated since 2006,” the HSI report indicated.

Only four drug smuggling tunnels were discovered before 1999. The number of tunnels found annually slowly increased before spiking to 17 in 2006 – which was over double the amount located the year prior. Additional tunnels were discovered in the following years, hitting 25 in 2009 and 23 in 2010.

The spike coincides with 2006’s Secure Fence Act, which permitted the construction of up to 700 miles of fence, and Operation Jump Start, which enhanced the number and aggressiveness of law enforcement.

“The success of Operation Jump Start, the border fencing and subsequent elevation in Border Patrol agent levels may have caused [transnational organizations] to seek alternative methods for transporting drugs across the border,” the HSI report continued.

The tunnels are highly complex and are difficult to detect. Entrances are typically located in covered shelters, such as warehouses, and have lighting and ventilation systems.

Tunnels linking the border towns of Mexico and the US have long been used by drug cartels. (AP)

One tunnel recovered in 2010, for instance, was close to half a mile long, 90 feet deep, and was built at an estimated cost of $1 million.

Recently, traffickers have started employing drills that can dig drug smuggling tunnels as narrow as six inches to transport drugs, making it even more challenging for federal agents to detect.

“CBP does not have the technological capability to detect illicit tunnels routinely and accurately,” the 2012 IG report stated. “Until CBP has this, criminals may continue to build cross-border tunnels undetected.”

Lenoir also noted that they have “been testing every viable technology on the planet. We’re talking about a small, niche market here. If there were something out there that worked, we would be using it.”

He added that the equipment they possess is only moderately useful and it would be expensive to produce technology unique to his team’s needs. Instead, agent use more traditional means.

“We put emphasis on human intelligence … hardened investigative techniques, outreach programs, and old-fashioned police work,” Lenoir said.

Outreach programs are another way that officials can spread awareness by teaching residents about recognizing potential tunnel sites.

Additionally, tunnels aren’t the only way drugs are smuggled across the border.

“There are peaks and valleys,” LeNoir added. Tunnels “tend to be trendy one year, not trendy the next.”

Smugglers shift their focus to a different trafficking method after agencies more effectively crack down on another.

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