The More Time and Money the Government Spends Finding and Filling Drug Tunnels, The Bigger and More Elaborate They Get


Originally posted on August 10, 2014:

"You can't fight markets," says David Shirk, associate professor of international relations and director of the Justice in Mexico project at the University of San Diego. "When a market reaches a certain size, you can't fight it." 

Joe Garcia, a deputy special agent with the Department of Homeland Security and head of the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, would beg to differ. He and his colleagues have spent much of their careers doing just that, discovering more than 200 drug tunnels under the California-Mexico border since the inception of the task force in 1990. 

"We want to make it so unattractive to do the type of work that they do, that they'll go somewhere else," says Garcia.

Garcia and his team are skilled at discovering tunnels and filling them up and have garnered favorable local press coverage on a number of big drug busts. But despite these high-visibility wins for Garcia's team, a recent report from the California Attorney General's office paints a picture of a California-Mexico border that's leakier than ever and reports that California has surpassed Texas as the nation's top methamphetamine entry point. 

"For every mile of fencing we put up, for every extra thousand or ten thousand border patrol agents that we throw into the area, there's always some trafficker or some organization out there who's figuring out how to maneuver around those obstacles," says Shirk, who contributed to the Attorney General's report. 

Garcia acknowledges that the team's initial approach felt a lot like "playing whack-a-mole," with a new tunnel popping up every time they shut an old one down. So, the team shifted its strategy and began targeting the heads of the organizations funding the tunnels, which reflects a broader shift in the U.S. war on drugs. Government efforts to systematically eliminate cartel leaders promptly destabilized the region and led to some of the worst bloodshed in the country's history. 

"It was when the government decided to take on drug traffickers that the drug war became a literal war," says Shirk.

Decades of experience and improvements in technology have honed the tunnel task force's proficiency at detecting and eliminating tunnels, and Garcia's team has all but stamped out amateurish, unskilled smuggling operations. In this challenging environment, the most sophisticated and well-funded operations have cornered the market and see a bigger and better payout at the end of the proverbial, and literal, tunnel. As a result, the team has discovered numerous so-called "super tunnels" over the past five years: deep, multi-million dollar, professionally constructed tunnels boasting elevator shafts, high-powered ventilation, and even electric trains, possibly making them some of California's first ever profitable rail projects.

The technological arms race between law enforcement and drug traffickers has done little to shake Garcia's faith in the righteousness of his mission. He describes himself as the Dutch boy from the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, holding his finger in the leaky dike to hold back a flood until backup arrives with a more permanent solution.

"We know that's a long, hard road, and we may never be successful in our lifetimes. But we have to continue to lay that foundation down," he says.

That's one way to think about America's 40-year war on drugs. Another is to imagine a tiny tunnel underneath the border. You fill it. But another, bigger and better tunnel appears, so you assemble a special team of professionals to fill up tunnels and keep up with the professionals on the other side. And now, it's just you, and the professionals. You both learn and improve every time. The tunnels are getting bigger and better, but at least you're finding them. You are finding all of them, right?

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Approximately 6 minutes. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Paul Detrick and Weissmueller. Music by Chris Zabriskie.

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  1. “When a market reaches a certain size, you can’t fight it.”

    You can fight it; you just can’t win. Unless winning to you is making money and gaining power with the fighting and not the winning.

  2. what does it say that drug cartels can spend millions on a tunnel?They use it and make even more millions,the drug warriors find it,they move to another.It’s just a cost of their ‘trade’.Lose a shipment of drugs or cash once in a while?Big deal,money rolls in.Yet,the warriors make every bust,or tunnel found out to be a major victory.It’s time to end this war.

    1. Actually it sounds like the perfect racket for everyone involved

      1. This in spades.

      2. Other than taxpayers, small-time dealers, the poor sots who get busted with some product, and everyone caught between cartels on the one hand and SWAT officers on the other.

    2. The coke cartels used to try to disguise the coke they wete having smuggled in various ways until they figured out that they could lose 10 percent to law enforcement and still make billions.

  3. A non-racist cop speaks out.…..bla,36683/

    1. I laughed, and then it occurred to me I should probably cry.

      That’s teh awsum.

  4. Despite an hour of glue sniffing I still just couldn’t destroy brain cells fast enough and so I ventured over to Salon. Boy – did that do the trick!

    It’s time to snap out of it. Obama is still the most powerful man in the world. The nation still needs presidential action. And the Democrats need action too, if they’re going to avoid disaster this fall.

    1. Price controls on college tuition? Yeah, that’ll work.

      1. Price controls on lawyers.

        1. And piss off a huge donor base? Never happen.

  5. Fun article.

    3. Make it clear that he will no longer tolerate the college tuition price spiral.

    Pop quiz: who were two of the five biggest contributors to Barack Obama’s reelection campaign?

    Ain’t gonna happen, Frank.

    1. Huh – and here I thought the Hahvahd and UCal types were supposed to be “smart”.

    2. The fuck?

      How can a public university donate to any political campaign?

      1. The organizations themselves did not donate , rather the money came from the organizations’ PACs, their individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals’ immediate families

        Ah. I see. Still, considering who the system’s president is it’s still damn fishy.

        1. “Ah. I see. Still, considering who the system’s president is it’s still damn fishy.”

          She ended up there after the election, but it really doesn’t matter.
          UC is a state school; a product of state funding, controlled by politicos (at enough distance to claim plausible deniability), living by and promoting the sate.
          There is no way those who work there would support or admit to supporting other than the D candidate for anything including dog-catcher.

  6. Meanwhile, the Ferguson police are tear gassing protestors and arresting journalists again.

    1. I wish (most of) the protestors the best, the looters and the cops the worst.
      But are the protestors still carrying signs equating Travon (whoever) to this guy?

      1. I’ve been wondering how much of the public reaction to this situation has been poisoned by the insanity that surrounded the Zimmerman thing. I’ve been seeing it referenced fairly regularly despite the fact that the two cases are not similar. I suppose that I am grown exceedingly weary of people who must inject race into absolutely everything that involves two or more persons of differing skin colors. Such a monumental distraction.

      2. Ironically – it looks like there *is* equivalence here between Martin and Brown.

        1. That being?

          1. Neither of them are the innocent angels that their supporters and family try to make them out to be.

            Martin was shot because he over-reacted to a man questioning his (sketchy) goings-on.

            Brown (while the cop who shot him did not yet know this) had just committed heavy shoplifting/light robbery.

            The difference here is that evidence pointed to Martin being at fault in his shooting while the evidence that’s coming out for Brown, while deeply unflattering (at best) is still not showing why the cop fired from inside his vehicle in the first place – this is what prompted them to run – and then give chase, ending in a confrontation where the officer shot Brown.

            See, I’m thinking that if someone shoots at you from a vehicle, then chases you down and you can’t shake him, attacking him might be the only option left.

    2. And I understand Holder’s got another autopsy going.

      But the feds should have no jurisdiction here, cause it’s not a matter for the Nat’l govt.

      Oh, wait – “civil rights” and “FYTW”. So of course it’s a matter for the Nat’l govt. Well, at least for the race-hustling Attorney Gen’l and his race-hustling boss.

      What a couple of assholes.

  7. Also caught the end of the Panthers/Chiefs game. How does Pam Oliver remain employed? She is horrible. The worst. Insipid, unimportant, useless – why does she appear on these shows? She’s awful.

    1. “How does Pam Oliver remain employed?”
      That’s how.

  8. Slow night:
    The back story is this gal has a jones for sneaking onto airplanes. I have no idea why, but she’s been trying (and doing) it for some time in SF and LA. Enough that the face is recognizable to all who have eyes.
    So, in a clear demonstration of the worthlessness of TSA she ends up in HI a couple of weeks ago sans ticket, boarding pass and (obviously) that oh, so important groping by TSA.
    The judge gives her probation and it’s all of several hours later when she’s making a mockery of airport security ONE MORE TIME!
    So, I guess to avoid embarrassing the cretins at TSA AGAIN, this time the judge tosses her in the slammer. Except CA slammers are overcrowded (gimme that ol’ time D gov’t!), so they let her out for time served.
    “Woman who sneaked on plane gets early jail release”…..hc-bayarea
    I’ma giver her until daybreak on the 18th before she ‘outwits’ (if you can use that term) TSA once again.

    1. I’m curious as to what they charged her with.

      Petty theft, trespassing?

      1. Exposing Incompetence in the 1st Degree.

        1. oooh! That’s a paddlin’.

  9. Sounds like some pretty serious business dude.

  10. possibly making them some of California’s first ever profitable rail projects.

    Full of win.

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