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Drug smuggling border tunnels targeted in new get-tough law

May 16, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • A federal agent crawls through a tunnel found in a warehouse along the border between the United States and Mexico in 2010.
A federal agent crawls through a tunnel found in a warehouse along the border… (U.S. Immigration and Customs…)

WASHINGTON — Responding to an increase in smuggling tunnels along the California and Arizona borders, the House on Wednesday passed legislation aimed at helping law enforcement combat underground drug trafficking.

In a rare bipartisan vote, the House overwhelmingly approved the Border Tunnel Prevention Act.

President George W. Bush in 2006 signed legislation making it a federal crime to build or finance a cross-border tunnel to smuggle drugs, illegal immigrants and weapons.

Sponsors of the new bill said the 2006 law needs to be strengthened because tunnels are still being discovered -- 40 in California and 74 in Arizona since 2006, according to federal officials.

The legislation would make it a crime to attempt or conspire to build, finance or use an illegal cross-border tunnel. It would allow law enforcement to seek judicial approval to use wiretapping in investigations of the tunnels and permit seizure of cash or other property brought into the U.S. in an illegal tunnel. It also would allow prosecutors to pursue money laundering charges in tunnel cases.

"This bill reaffirms our determination to bring an end to cross-border tunnels," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), the bill's chief sponsor, said it would close loopholes in existing law and "improve the tools available to investigate and prosecute individuals who construct cross-border tunnels." 

A similar bill has passed the Senate.

Its chief sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), pledged to work to move a final bill to President Obama’s desk.

U.S. agents use a range of devices from ground-penetrating radar to seismic sensors to try to find and destroy tunnels.

"But despite these efforts, drug smugglers continue to build the tunnels, often spending $1 million to dig a single pathway equipped with lighting, ventilation, water pumps, and hydraulic elevators," according to a House Judiciary Committee report.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a House Judiciary Committee member who was one of the dissenters in the 416-4 vote, questioned whether the legislation was needed.

"While I do think border tunnels are a serious problem, I believe we already have adequate laws with very harsh penalties to deal with the problem," he said. 

The 2006 law was passed after the discovery of a tunnel spanning nearly half a mile from a nondescript industrial building in Tijuana to an Otay Mesa, Calif., warehouse and equipped with lighting, ventilation and a pulley system.

It made it a federal crime, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, to build or finance an illegal cross-border tunnel, and subjected property owners to a maximum 10 years in prison for allowing construction of a cross-border tunnel on their land.

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