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Tunnel-detection technology at US-Mexico border: Is it worth the effort?

The US government is researching use of robots, microgravity sensors, and other high-tech tools to find smuggling tunnels under the US-Mexico border. But police work may be the most effective tool.

By Elyssa PachicoGuest blogger / November 18, 2011

Government agents look at the opening of a major cross-border drug tunnel linking warehouses in Otay Mesa industrial park and Tijuana, Mexico, in Otay Mesa, California on Wednesday. Police discovered the tunnel running to California from Mexico, and seized more than 17 tons of marijuana, US and Mexican authorities said.

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As smugglers' tunnels between the US and Mexico grow increasingly common, Washington is pouring resources into the search for a high-tech solution to the problem, when old-fashioned investigative work might be more effective.

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On November 16, a security team created exclusively to hunt down tunnels, known as the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, announced the seizure of 17 tons of marijuana after they discovered a passageway connecting the US border city with Tijuana. According to the Los Angeles Times, the tunnel ran the length of four football fields and descended 20 feet underground. Authorities have discovered over 70 tunnels in the San Diego area since 2008.

The same day, another tunnel was discovered in Nogales, Arizona, bringing the number of tunnels found in that state during the last fiscal year to 12.

US efforts to increase surveillance along the southern border have included proposals to recycle equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan and increase the use of drone aircraft. In a recent Congressional subcommittee hearing by the Department of Homeland Security, several witnesses emphasized one of the US government's most extensive initiatives to improve their monitoring of the border: the use of technology to detect drug tunnels.

US agents have observed increased usage of underground tunnels to smuggle weapons and drugs since the first one was documented in 1990. Since then, authorities have discovered 154 such tunnels, the majority in the San Diego-Tijuana area, although a few have been found in Arizona.

Over time the tunnels have shown increased sophistication, growing in height and length. Several have been discovered equipped with electricity, ventilation and rail systems; others have been used to smuggle migrants.

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