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Editorial: How Much Does It Cost to Build an Air-Conditioned Drug Smuggling Tunnel?

Submitted by David Borden on (Issue #550)

David Borden, Executive Director

David Borden
Awhile back I attended a small lunch-time forum on the subject of immigration and the US-Mexico border. Seated at the table was a man in a military uniform, not one of the speakers, but clearly eager to say his piece. After the presentation was over, he put up his hand, told us he was an officer with Southcom -- the branch of the Armed Forces dealing with areas to the south of the United States -- and that his military education and experience told him that walls don't stop people. Walls just slow people down, he said -- you can go over a wall, you can through it, you can go around it, or you can go under it. And militarily he understood that a wall spanning our border would not slow people down enough to stop the kind of traffic that we have crossing the border, not unless we simply shoot people to kill on sight, which he was unwilling to do.

Whatever one thinks about immigration, or attempts to block it at the border, the reasoning has clear implications for the so-far ineffective attempts at drug interdiction. If it is either impossible or at least difficult to stop people at the border -- and since we haven't managed to do it so far, it must at least be difficult -- how difficult must it be to stop the flow of drugs? After all, people have a certain height and width and depth, and they need oxygen and occasionally food and water and space to move. Drugs can be packaged in any shape or size, they don't require maintenance over the period of time involved in trafficking them, and a fairly small volume of certain drugs can be worth a small mint. It's fairly safe to say that drugs are not going to be kept out of this country, no matter how hard we try. It is simply not going to happen.

The idea of going "under" a wall or border to get somewhere got press this week. In the Mexican state of Baja California, near the border across from the California town Calexico, Mexican police arrested eight men who were digging a sophisticated cross-border tunnel. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, the tunnel has "its own elevator, lighting and ventilation systems," and starts from an otherwise ordinary white house in an upper-middle class neighborhood near the border fence. Some reports say it has electric rail for container transport too.

While the technology and professionalism involved in the tunnel's design and construction may sound remarkable, the project was by no means unique. According to the US Immigration and Customs Bureau (ICE), at least 75 have been found since the 1990s. They're not limited to our southern border, either.

My two questions are: How many successful drug smuggling operations are needed in order to pay for constructing and maintaining such a tunnel -- might it only need to be used once? -- and how many more tunnels are there that have never been found? I have a feeling that there are many undiscovered smuggling tunnels, and that the cost of building one with air-conditioning and electric transportation is low compared with the likely rewards. The proof that the cost is low is simply the fact that they keep building them over and over. They wouldn't keep building the tunnels if it weren't a cost-effective strategy.

Don't expect the drug trade to slow anytime soon, at least not because of law enforcement. And don't let the pictures of the latest tunnel or drug seizure fool you into thinking it might.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

The government has the best tunnels and they are quick to eliminate the competition whenever possible.

Fri, 09/05/2008 - 11:47am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Our American governments ability to maintain it's eternal hold-on and control-of the black market, is "Priority ONE"! The people who comprise our American government are the agents responsible for brining-into America the merchandise available only through the black market.
For what other reason would the leaders and administrators of our very own community work sooo hard to keep in place our currently out-dated, illegal, and unconstitutional laws and legislation? Drug laws are laws which are designed to target and discriminate against people who are perceived as being "undesirable persons" who otherwise are conducting their lives in a fully legal manner.
Our government won't stand for any competition when it comes to sharing black market profits with any person or organization. Why do think the Feds went after the Mafia so strongly? Because the Mob was becoming a very competitive organization. (And you know that our government operatives have learned a lot about running an organized criminal enterprise from all their decades of spying on the Mob!)
George W. Bush is dumber than an acre full of dead tree stumps...but the people who 'handle' him are highly educated on the fine points of "criminal enterprise". They don't need no stinkin tunnels!

Fri, 09/05/2008 - 2:46pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

"Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap! " ~ General "Buck" Turgidson (Dr. Strangelove)

Fri, 09/05/2008 - 8:30pm Permalink
Giordano (not verified)

The U.S. government must think everyone's a jerk when it comes to adapting to new and more complicated transport systems for big ticket commodities.

How many times have the feds dissed the talents and abilities of the opposition only to regret it later?  Baghdad?  9-11? Viet Nam?  Pearl Harbor?  Prohibition?  You think they’d get it right some day, but no…’let’s build a fence’ and ‘let’s prohibit drugs’.

Tunnels were the reason the U.S. lost it in Viet Nam.  Tunnels and caves are the reason no one can find a mining engineer and CIA trainee named Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.  Resistance to tunnels is futile.


Sat, 09/06/2008 - 1:48am Permalink
rita (not verified)

The Mexican government shouldn't be arresting these people, they should HIRE them -- and the guy with the submarine, too.

They're obviously smart, ambitious and not afraid of getting dirty; maybe they'd figure out how to drag Mexico out of the Third World. Big Brother United States certainly isn't going to do it.

Sat, 09/06/2008 - 2:14pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I heard it stated so eloquently once, "Trying to stop drugs from coming into our country is like trying to keep a river from flowing downstream with a fork."

Mon, 09/08/2008 - 12:10pm Permalink
Iamme (not verified)


That's a relief to hear that the flow of drugs won't slow down any time soon. Personally I wish they could triple the influx. Maybe the prices would go down. Not that I'm a big consumer, but if the prices would get cheap then the addicts wouldn't have to steal, rob, do I.D theft crimes to pay for it.

Mon, 09/08/2008 - 11:43pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

USA declared the war... Smugglers are just building the trenches.

Wed, 09/10/2008 - 5:59pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

If the government would put, let's say all the troops in Iraq along the Mexican border for a couple a months as a test. I think we would see amazing results on the flow of drugs and illegal immigrants into the U.S. A very small percentage of Americans are affected by the loss of life in the war with Iraq, put almost everybody is affected by drug related issues directly or indirectly.

Sat, 11/15/2008 - 12:51am Permalink

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