In response to the rising number of smugglers' tunnels found along the US-Mexico border, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill on Tuesday that would authorize the use of wiretapping to investigate and prosecute those conspiring to build such passageways.
The current law criminalizes the outright funding or building of tunnels and prohibits landowners from "recklessly" permitting others to build or use an unauthorized tunnel on their property. The Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012, sponsored by US Representative Silvestre Reyes (D- El Paso), would expand the existing law by making it a crime to conspire to build, use, or finance a border tunnel.
The legislation would also authorize the interception of "wire, oral or electronic communications" during law enforcement investigations. Previously, wiretapping could only be authorized to monitor a drug tunnel if law enforcement could prove that drugs or other illegal contraband were involved.
According to the bill, 139 of the 149 cross-border tunnels discovered between 1990 and 2011 were found after 2001, pointing to a rise in the number of tunnels being used for moving drugs, guns, contraband, and undocumented immigrants. Smuggling tunnels have been found mainly in the US Southwest, particularly in Arizona and California, where authorities have discovered 74 and 40 tunnels, respectively, since 2006.
The bill now moves to the full House for consideration.
InSight Crime Analysis
By allowing the use of wiretapping, the legislation is aimed at making it easier for law enforcement to build successful cases against tunnel-builders on the US side of the border. Besides supporting police work, Washington has experimented with other approaches to better detect smugglers' tunnels, including funding research for technologies like ground radars.
The fact that prosecutors may soon be given the authority to use wiretapping against those involved in building tunnels is one sign of how the issue of border security has galvanised Congress. The question is whether updating the legal tools available to law enforcement is enough to deter the activity, or whether smugglers' increased dependence on underground passageways is inevitable, given the difficulty of properly monitoring the full extent of the US-Mexico frontier.