SAN DIEGO — Top U.S. border officials expect cartels to build more tunnels from Mexico to the United States and increasingly rely on drones for surveillance operations as the 400 miles of new border wall makes it harder to smuggle people and drugs into the country.
Transnational criminal organizations have long used tunnels and drones at the southwest border, but senior Border Patrol officials across the country are bracing for more activity as new 30-foot-tall barrier wall goes up in areas that have long been easy for criminals to cross.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking that the cartels and smuggling organizations won’t do whatever to try to adapt,” said Anthony Porvaznik, chief of the Border Patrol’s Yuma sector in western Arizona. “We fully expect to see more tunneling activity.”
“Smugglers are in the business to make money,” said Border Patrol’s national chief, Rodney Scott, during a one-on-one tour with the Washington Examiner of the Southern California region. “I definitely think they will, but again, we talk about the wall system all the time … because it’s a 30-year, enduring investment that, without it, they wouldn’t have to go to drones, they wouldn’t have to go to tunnels, they wouldn’t even have to go to the port of entry. They were just driving trucks across before, and the overhead expenses for them were significantly lower to just drive across.”
Three types of tunnels are seen on the southern border: rudimentary tunnels comparable to gopher holes that only go several feet deep; those that connect into existing infrastructure systems, like a drainage system; and sophisticated ones that can go as deep as 90 feet. Scott said federal investigators typically learn very early on about the elaborate kind of tunnels and intentionally do not bust them until they are almost complete.
“On average, it takes about a year for them to dig it. It takes engineers, and it takes a lot of money, so if we can literally keep them focused on pouring their money into a hole in the ground, we know about, we’ll let it go until right at the end,” said Scott. “We just want to make sure no illegal substances or people get into the U.S.”
In August, federal agents announced the discovery of the “most sophisticated” tunnel ever found at the border. The tunnel was built 25 feet below the sandy grounds of Yuma, Arizona. It was far enough along that ventilation and rail systems had already been installed. Yuma border officials showed the tunnel to the Washington Examiner. Outside companies are remediating the tunnel, which includes filling it with concrete so that it cannot be used in the future.
Despite Yuma’s recent bust, the San Diego region’s soil composition makes it the most suitable for tunnel builders out of the nine regions by which the Border Patrol divides the southwest border.
“Here, it’s soft, so they have to actually line it with wood and hold it up,” said Porvaznik, who is based in Arizona. “In San Diego, they can dig it out, and it’s more clay-like material, so it’ll stay.”
Border officials expected the wall to have an impact on tunneling and included in annual wall funding money for underground systems that can detect disturbances in the soil. In Southern California, Border Patrol has a team that tracks tunnel activity. Border Patrol San Diego Chief Aaron Heitke said intelligence specialists map out warehouses located near the border and go door to door to meet with business owners to get a feel for who may be a threat. The team takes an overt approach, out in public and by asking businesses if they see unusual activity to tip off the Department of Homeland Security. The task force can also track imports and exports, as well as taxes filed to the Internal Revenue Service, to see if a business is a front or conducting legitimate trade.
“We’re literally kind of mapping out like, ‘Sony has been here forever. It’s a legitimate business. We’ve never had any problems. It’s a lower threat,’” said Scott, who previously oversaw the San Diego region. “This warehouse — you’ve got seven businesses in different suites that have been here for years. We know them. They call, they don’t, whatever — you kind of gauge it. And this one turns over every 30 days, every 60 days. That’s something we’re going to watch.”
In El Paso, where tunnels are less prevalent because of the river and canal systems, agents constantly see drones flying over from Mexico.
“All day long — 24/7 in this area — there’s drones going up and down,” said Border Patrol’s El Paso division chief for operations, Walter Slozar. “They’re not using them to smuggle things yet … We can even tell like when one goes up, ‘Oh, when that one goes up, that’s when something happens over here.’”
Drones surveil agents on the ground and inform smugglers when to send migrants over the border and when agents may be wrapped up elsewhere.
The western Arizona and eastern California regions are also seeing a heavy use of drones but for the smuggling of drugs over the wall. Porvaznik said drones will make up to 30 trips back and forth each night, carrying approximately a kilogram of drugs northbound.
Porvaznik points to a framed photograph in his office that shows an “octocopter,” an eight-propeller unmanned aerial system that goes for $16,000. Border Patrol’s aerial surveillance trucks detected it flying through U.S. airspace near the border transporting 25 pounds of cocaine over the border.
“It’s dark, and they’re silent,” said Porvaznik. “We’ve had numerous instances of drones working in [the] San Luis area, bringing over load after load, and they just keep making trips all night. At times, they overload them, and they crash. And so, our agents have found them with dope strapped to them.”
Yuma agents have been able to track where some drugs are dropped and then pursue drivers who transport it. Agents do not have a way to force a drone and are still in the process of detecting them.