As U.S. officials have been finding more and more tunnels used to ferry drugs across the border between Mexico and California, they have noticed a narrowing trend – the tunnels are getting smaller.
While they may still span the lengths of numerous football fields, Mexican cartels are shrinking the width of the tunnels and cutting back on the advanced technology employed in them.
These cutbacks may be an indication, law enforcement agents believe, that the cartels are doing a cost-benefit analysis on tunnels and being swayed by the idea that less capital is lost when they are discovered by authorities.
"It saves them money ... In at least the previous six tunnels, we've hit those before they got any narcotics through. So it was a tremendous amount of money and resources that they wasted when we took those off," William Sherman, special agent in charge for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times. “I think [they're thinking], ‘Hey, they're finding these pretty quick, we maybe shouldn't put as much money into them, even if it takes us more time to get the loads through.'"
Over the last five years, more than 75 cross-border tunnels have been found, mostly in California and Arizona. These finds has many experts wondering if drug traffickers are getting more prolific in their tunnel projects – at a time when U.S. politicians keep discussing a border wall – or whether U.S. authorities are getting more sophisticated about how to find them.
“The tunnels have always been there. There’s nothing new about that,” Nelson Balido, the CEO of the Border Commerce and Security Council, told Fox News Latino. “But authorities have gotten better, and technology has gotten better at detecting them."
The most prolific tunnel-building organization is the Sinaloa Cartel, which has famously sprung its leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, from Mexico's highest-security prison via a mile-long tunnel. They are believed to regularly hire engineers and other professionals from Europe to design and build the underground corridors.
The Sinaloa Cartel is known for its complex and technologically advanced tunnels, but as more cartels splinter into smaller and smaller criminal groups, experts say that this has coincided with a greater diversity in tunneling styles.
"In that regard you will see many types of tunnels, some very sophisticated tunnels and others very basic," said Edgardo Buscaglia, a senior research scholar in law and economics at Columbia Law School. "The sophistication of the tunnels reflects the sophistication of the organized crime network that traffics all its stuff up north."
The expansion of the tunnel network across the border has U.S. officials looking toward their allies in Israel – and their fight against Hamas militants – for guidance and technological inspiration.
The U.S. has earmarked $120 million over the next three years to help Israel develop sensor technology to identify complex tunnel systems built by Hamas from Gaza into Israel to carry out terrorist attacks, according to Israeli media.
U.S. is bankrolling the project in the hopes that it could eventually use the technology to detect tunnels along the Mexico border, according to Israeli and Palestinian media.
U.S. officials would not comment on what type of technology law enforcement officials are using now or plan to employ in the future.
“Along with our partners in the DEA, ICE and the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, we’re able to leverage several types of technology to detect tunnels,” Mark Endicott, a supervisory agent at the Border Patrol, told FNL.