In mid-April, federal authorities in California discovered what they claimed was the longest drug smuggling tunnel ever constructed along the Golden state’s border with Mexico.
Spanning over 2,600 feet – roughly the length of nine football fields and complete with railing, ventilation and lighting – the tunnel ran from a flophouse in Tijuana to a fenced-in lot Otay Mesa. Along with the tunnel, the investigation also churned up 2,242 pounds of cocaine and 14,000 pounds of marijuana that authorities believe made its way to the U.S. through the tunnel.
While its size and the amount of drugs seized alongside it made the find headline news across the world, the tunnel is actually one of many found in recent years along California’s border with Mexico (13 since 2006 with three found on the same street). It has many experts wondering if drug traffickers are getting more prolific in their tunnel projects – during a time when the U.S. officials keep arguing over 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.”
According to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) directorate, most of the existing technology used to uncover tunnels is based on equipment originally designed to detect land mines or identify natural gas and oil deposits.
Both the DHS and outside experts, however, say that this type of equipment is not ideally suited for tunnel detection as it is costly, varies in effectiveness depending on the soil and can be difficult to use.
“The technology is not what we want it to be,” Sylvia Longmire, an analyst on the drug trade and author of “Cartel and Border Insecurity,” told FNL. “It’s also not economically feasible to produce different sensors for the different types of soil along the border.”
Longmire added that the majority of tunnels uncovered by U.S. authorities are found through tips from informants or through investigative work.
In an effort to grapple with the seemingly never-ending emergence of drug tunnels along the southern border, U.S. officials are 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 it to detect tunnels along the Mexico border, according to Israeli and Palestine media.
U.S. officials would not comment on what type of technology law enforcement officials are using or plan to use 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 tunnel,” Mark Endicott, a supervisory agent at the Border Patrol, told FNL.
Israeli research into the tunnel detection systems has been going on for over 10 years, but much of it has remained shrouded in secrecy. Two technology systems, developed in 2005 and 2006, were initially deemed not effective, but the systems are now undergoing “changes and updates,” according to the Israeli military.
“An integration of these two systems recently successfully passed laboratory tests and the [Israeli Defense Forces] will shortly undergo field testing,” it said, according to Fox News. “If and when these tests are successful, the IDF will recommend a combination of these systems, plus physical obstacles between the gaps.”
Unlike Hamas militants, however, Mexico’s cartels are more interested in sneaking drugs across the border than they are in launching attacks on U.S. soil. Experts argue that once the U.S. figures out technology to detect drug tunnels, cartels will easily find another way to ferry their product across the border.
Balido said that authorities are already seeing this shift with the emergence of commercial drones.
“As these tunnels become more prevalent and the systems to detect them gets better, drug traffickers are going to be using newer methods,” Balido said. “The biggest problem for authorities when it comes to drones is that you can’t detect them because they’re so small.”
There is also the fact that no matter how many tunnels are found, there will always be more that go undetected. And cartels will keep building them as long as they’re making a profit.
“It’s not like you’re going to cut the flow of drugs off,” Balifor said. “It’s almost like wack-a-mole. You knock one down and another pops up.”
“We need to do a better job at playing wack-a-mole.”