Strategies for combating illegal tunnels on the Southwest border, including increased collaboration between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies, are producing positive results, a top-level Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official testified before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control on Wednesday.
“Our growing partnership with Mexico is critical to our continued success in disrupting criminal activity along the Southwest border,” Executive Associate Director of ICE James Dinkins said.
Since 1990, 153 tunnel attempts have been discovered along the Southwest border. Dinkins attributed that to increased pressure from law enforcement agencies. However, the time and labor that go into construction of the tunnels show that smugglers feel the benefits outweigh the risks of arrest, suffocation, and collapse, Dinkins said.
ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) takes point on counter-tunnel investigations, leading a multi-agency Tunnel Task Force (TTF) in information sharing and coordination. “The TTF brings together investigators from several agencies including ICE, CBP, FBI, DEA, DoD, and various state and local agencies to combat the tunnel threat. Whether through the TTF or existing field relationships between local CBP and offices, both and CBP work collaboratively in combating tunnel threats,” Dinkins said. “Our efforts to combat illicit tunnels are producing results.”
Dinkins testified that a TTF operation last fall yielded the second largest drug seizure on U.S. soil after the task force discovered a 600-yard border tunnel. TTF agents found the exit point of the tunnel and identified a tractor trailer leaving the area. The information was forwarded to U.S. Border Patrol agents, who stopped the truck at a checkpoint and found 10 tons of marijuana. Another 16 tons were found at the building where the truck departed. Additional information was provided to the Mexican authorities who located the tunnel entrance at a warehouse in Tijuana where they recovered another four tons of marijuana.
One of the primary goals of TTF is to discover tunnels before they can be completed. Half of the tunnels discovered aren’t operational. “This trend has increased over recent years, and demonstrates the success of our collective efforts on the TTF and our increased coordination with the government of Mexico,” Dinkins said.
The ICE assistant attaché in Tijuana is creating a joint ICE-Government of Mexico investigative tunnel response team to identify and investigate tunnels on the Mexican side of the border providing both equipment and training to Mexican authorities.
ICE is also turning to the community for tips and leads. The San Diego Tunnel Outreach detection program educates property owners on signs of tunnel activity and aims to increase awareness with door-to-door canvassing of homes in areas known for illegal tunnel activity.
At the hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein also revealed her plans to introduce legislation to enhance penalties for tunneling operations. After visiting the longest border tunnel to date in 2006 – a 2,400 foot tunnel, 85 feet below ground - Feinstein introduced the Border Tunnel Prevention Act.
“The bill became law in 2007 and criminalized the construction, financing, or use of an unauthorized tunnel or subterranean passage across an international border into the United States,” she said.
The enhancements would make construction or financing of a border tunnel a conspiracy offense. It would also punish the intent to engage in tunnel activity and make illegal tunneling an offense eligible for surveillance by wiretap.
BORDER TUNNEL HISTORY HIGHLIGHTS (starting from most recent events):
June 16, 2011 – A bill is introduced by Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) to prosecute people who finance or construct border tunnels. The bill also includes illegal tunneling as an offense eligible for Title III wiretaps.
May 2011 – Arizona authorities discover a tunnel 250 feet through solid rock leading to the U.S. border. The tunnel had electricity, water pumps, and ventilation reported The Daily Mail. The entrance of the tunnel was in an abandoned building.
October 2006 - The Border Tunnel Prevention Act is Passed.
January 2006 – The BBC reports that border officials find a tunnel 2,400 feet long and 85 feet below ground holding two tons of marijuana. The tunnel is the longest tunnel uncovered to date.
May 1990 – Rumors of drug tunnels running from Mexico to the United States are confirmed after Army geologists detect a suspicious hollow area 30 feet below ground. The tunnel ran from Mexico to the Douglas border crossing and was four feet wide at some points. A night raid yielded 30 pounds of marijuana, but no arrests were made.
photo by Daquella manera from flickr