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Fears Of Unholy Alliances Emerge As Mexican DTO Tunnel Discoveries Increase

By Joseph J. Kolb

The discovery of a sophisticated narcotics smuggling tunnel extending from Tijuana, Mexico to an industrial park in southern San Diego County in October is not only a harbinger for smuggling operations by Mexican drug trafficking organizations but also fertile ground for "unholy alliances" with terrorist organizations spurring concern that detection methods by the Department of Homeland Security need to be improved and amplified to reflect this new threat.

Since 1990 more than 140 cross-border tunnels have been discovered along the southwest border of the United States, according to a 2012 Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General report with an 80 percent increase in tunnel activity occurring since 2008. What was vaguely addressed is how the majority of these tunnels have not been found until completed and at or near fully operational status.

"Tunnels are definitely the new paradigm for smuggling organizations that have to adjust to the constriction caused by border security strategies and the residual circumstances of a chaotic border," said Victor M. Manjarrez, Jr., Associate Director, National Center for Border Security & Immigration, at the University of Texas-El Paso. "I expect as border security efforts improve and options for the criminal element are further reduced, they will turn to other means such as tunnels"
Manjarrez believes this proliferation of tunnels is a direct result of increased and improved border security efforts along the southwest border, however, what is occurring underground remains somewhat confounding.

In the most recent discovery on Oct. 29, federal agents found a 600 yard long tunnel that ran 35 feet deep under the border fence from Tijuana to Otay Mesa in southeast San Diego County, retrieving 17,292 pounds of marijuana and 325 pounds of cocaine from the tunnel, allegedly constructed by the Sinaloa Drug Trafficking Organization (DTO).

This discovery came as no surprise to Manjarrez who has seen firsthand the trends in smuggling after a 20 year career with the U.S. Border Patrol where he commanded the busy Tucson, Ariz. and El Paso, Texas, sectors.

It is the potential exploitation of these tunnels as potential conduits for terrorist groups to infiltrate the U.S. that has not fully reached a critical level of concern. With the full understanding that transnational criminal organizations work on no ideology and are profit motivated, the potential for these foreign terrorist organizations to name a price for passage is not unrealistic.

Cross-border tunnels are a result of transnational criminal organizations seeking new and dynamic methods to smuggle their illicit contraband which could be anything from narcotics, weapons, bulk cash, or aliens from special interest countries. This opportunity may be a costly business expense to the drug trafficking organization, with tunnels costing in excess of $1 million, but with the majority being found after they become operational the cost is worth it, as well as the collateral business opportunities that could arise.

"We know the FBI is concerned that tunnels could be used to smuggle WMD and/or terrorists into the U.S.," Triston Reed, Mexico Security analyst for STRATOR, a private security analysis firm says. "You also don't know what you don't know, so how do we know tunnels haven't been used to bring terrorists into the U.S.?"

What's particularly concerning is that above ground, smugglers can only transport what can be concealed among legitimate goods or carried across expansive terrain. With rail systems and ventilation in tunnels directly entering populated areas, smugglers can transport anything they want with less focus on concealment.

Reed's comment of what is and isn't known is more profound than flippant.

Opinions conflict as to the presence and even the assistance of extremist groups involved in the financing and construction of the tunnels. In the absence of concrete intelligence, observers are evaluating startling similarities. Tunnels are used to cross guarded borders all over the world, such as in Rafah in the Gaza strip where weapons, drugs, and militants can cross through.

There is a known presence of Hezbollah in Mexico and Latin America. While they are purported not to be operationally motivated rather than funding, the specter can't be ignored. Beyond the construction similarities between the DTO tunnels and those found in Gaza is the confirmed presence of Hezbollah and Iranian Quds in Mexico and the nexus with DTOs. And while we don't know if they have infiltrated the U.S. subterrainially, there is no doubt, through official confirmation, that Somalis allegedly connect to Al Ahabaab, Yeminis, Iranians, Sudanese, and Afghans, have all crossed the border illegally.

The problem that exists is that there is no reliable technology in place to accurately detect the presence of tunnel construction activity. Manjarrez says it is very difficult to detect a tunnel as it is being constructed to enter the United States because the criminal element is very protective and limits the 'need to know' on their side.

Manjarrez agrees this is just a first step towards addressing the issue of smuggling tunnels, but further efforts may need to look at geologic surveys to identify areas where cross-border tunneling could be most likely. In addition there should be more specific use of seismic detectors as well as being just as diligent with subterranean surveillance.

About the Author
Joseph J. Kolb is an instructor in the Criminal Justice Department at Western New Mexico University. He founded the department's undergraduate and graduate certificate program in Border Security Studies.



This is only a partial version of the article published in the latest Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security Int'l.
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