The US Congress has passed a bill to tighten penalties on building illicit tunnels under the border from Mexico, closing a loophole in previous legislation in an attempt to clamp down on this increasingly popular method of smuggling drugs, arms, and people.
The Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012 passed the House with over 400 votes, with four votes against. The press secretary of congressman Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso), the bill’s main sponsor, told InSight Crime it expands on a 2006 law criminalizing the construction of border tunnels, by allowing prosecutors to target those who conspire or attempt to build illegal tunnels. The secretary said the earlier law contained a “loophole” in that it could only be used to prosecute those who had successfully completed tunnels.
The law, pending approval by the Senate and a signature by the president, would also allow for wiretapping and asset seizures aimed at those who build and operate illegal tunnels.
InSight Crime Analysis
US authorities have reported a rise in the use of border tunnels to smuggle drugs, arms, and people under the southwest border with Mexico since the first illicit underground passageway was discovered in 1990. According to statistics quoted in the draft bill (see pdf) 149 illegal tunnels were discovered on the US-Mexico border between fiscal years 1990 and 2011, mostly in Arizona and California.
The tunnels seem to be becoming more common — 139 of them were found since 2001, and 114 since 2006. The bill notes that the tunnels are mostly used to smuggle drugs, but can also be used to move “people and other contraband.”
If this law passes, and its overwhelming bipartisan support suggests it will, authorities will have more investigative and legal tools to fight illicit tunnels on the border. This could mean a rise in the number of tunnels discovered, especially if the 2006 law was responsible for the subsequent spike in tunnels found.
Aside from this law, the US is stepping up its fight against illicit tunnels by investing in advanced technologies to keep pace with the increasing skill and ambition of their builders. Given that most of the busts so far have resulted from policing and intelligence work, it appears unlikely that high-tech systems will be able to cost-effectively stem the illicit flows underneath the US’s borders. Instead, laws like the Border Tunnel Prevention Act may be more effective, by equipping prosecutors and investigators to bring a broader range of cases, intercept more communications, and seize more assets.