As the U.S. debates the border wall proposed by President Trump, a new, illicit world is emerging underground.
And while Trump believes a wall will thwart illegal immigrants and drug dealers, it will do little to address the daunting labyrinth law enforcement authorities are confronting below the ground, a challenge that officials say they are ill-equipped to address.
There are at least 180 cross-border tunnels and intricate drainage systems between Mexico and California and Arizona, according to the Border Patrol, and drug dealers and human traffickers, known as coyotes, use these tunnels to move drugs and illegally smuggle people across the border largely undetected. As the number of tunnels grow and become more sophisticated, Border Patrol agents say they are falling behind in finding technology that will detect them.
Lance Lenoir, a member of the Border Patrol elite tunnel team working out of the San Diego Sector, said his team of five agents patrol the daunting miles of storm drains that lead them to connecting tunnels along the border.
“They are always digging tunnels somewhere," Lenoir said.
Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis for Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm based out of Austin, Texas, said Mexican drug dealers are shelling out millions of dollars to build underground tunnels into the U.S. And very few people, he said, know about their existence. Some of these tunnels have rail systems, lighting, ventilation and hydraulic lifts.
“In order to ensure a good return on this huge investment, the cartel groups work to keep the tunnel’s existence and the locations of its exits a secret,” Stewart said. “In fact, we have seen cases in which cartels have brought laborers in to dig tunnels and then killed them after they were done to keep the tunnel secret.”
He said those who do know about the tunnel are highly trusted employees and “very few in numbers to ensure solid operational security.”
The tunnels that are discovered are usually found by Border Patrol tunnel specialists or by accident during narcotics surveillance operations.
One recent tunnel discovered in October 2016 ran 330 yards from an ice store near the Tijuana airport to a store just across the border in the U.S. Officials said about 5 tons of marijuana was found in the tunnel and in the buildings on both sides of the border. The tunnels were found because of an anonymous tip – not because of detecting equipment, Lenoir said.
Lenoir said technology, such as ground-penetrating radar, does exist. But not only is it ineffective in many areas along the border, it is not available to enough agents to make a major impact.
And criminals are exploiting the weaknesses in detection technology.
“Unfortunately, we are severely lacking in technology,” he said, referring to the number of field agents available and the quality of the existing equipment to reliably detect a tunnel. “It’s difficult trying to find something in a specific geologic region that is in a confined space that can be 4 feet in diameter and 90 feet underground.”
Limiting the available technology: Surface noise. The noise from nearby traffic and major freeways and unregulated radio traffic from Mexico impairs an agent’s ability to detect what’s happening below ground.
“We’re aggressively pursuing better technology and interdiction strategies,” Lenoir said, “but it also has to come down to political will.”