Border Tunnel Problem Worsening As Fences Go Up
National Defense Magazine (2008-05) Stew Magnuson
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Reported by Stew Magnuson
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Tunnels underneath the southwest border are expected to proliferate as improved fencing makes it harder for smugglers to move illicit goods, said members of a San Diego task force tackling the problem.
The task force is seeing tunnels in “new geographical areas that traditionally have not had tunneling,” said Drug Enforcement Agency special agent and task force member Darron Lee at the National Defense Industrial Association robotics conference. About 18 were uncovered in 2007, he said.
The increased activity has apparently prompted some organizational changes in Washington where the issue is being taken more seriously, according to one insider. The Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate has given up its counter-tunneling portfolio to the Technical Support Working Group, an inter-agency organization that provides seed money for companies and research laboratories to solve vexing problems.
And when it comes to locating clandestine tunnels, and those who are constructing them, the technological challenges are many, Lee and other members of the task force said.
There are several ways to detect a tunnel with sensing technology, but they are not mature enough to be effective. In addition, none of them are covert, Lee said. Those who are using the tunnels can spot the task force’s efforts and disappear before they are caught.
“We arrest very few people — if any at all,” he said.
Most discoveries come from tips rather than sensors.
Because of the dangers involved, agents cannot simply jump into a tunnel with guns drawn and catch the perpetrators red-handed, he explained.
Procedures call for a map to be drawn within 24 hours. Then a National Guard weapons of mass destruction civil support team must be called in to ensure the tunnel was not used to bring in something more nefarious than drugs. By that time, the smugglers or tunnel engineers are long gone.
The task force would like to use robots that could go in first to make safety assessments and a map. They have been tried before, but with little success, said Border Patrol senior agent Greg Torres. The Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego loaned the task force some robots to try out, but they didn’t work well in the harsh conditions. Wheels got stuck in the sandy soil, and ground water, which is commonly found in deep tunnels, also posed problems, Torres said. Robots controlled with radio frequencies don’t operate in tunnels, and the tethers used in their place broke easily, he added.
Agents must go into the tunnel in the place of robots. In an earthquake prone area, that is problematic. Air quality is also a concern.
Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona may host a tunnel test bed to try out new detection and reconnaissance technologies, the insider said.
Newly discovered tunnels can’t be used for that purpose because federal policy dictates that they be filled in with 30 days of being found, task force members said.