Way Down in the Hole: Clandestine Tunneling and the 4th Industrial Revolution

By Keith

You gotta keep the devil, way down in the hole.

-Tom Waits, Frank’s Wild Years

When I was a wee lad, I remember World News anchors ceaselessly reporting on the escape of Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug lord of Columbia’s Medellin Cartel. When Colombian task force soldiers stormed his custom-made prison “La Catedral,” Pablo and his brother Roberto escaped through a tunnel system. It was a humiliating failure for the Colombian government to absorb, highlighted by the fact that a low-tech hand-dug tunnel defeated all the whizbang security technology and tactics available in 1992.

Can’t say I was surprised even back then. My 1992 self couldn’t imagine a dream house without tunnels, and pitfalls, and secret rooms with rotating platforms, and any number of other Cobra Terrordome features. What struck me as odd, and why I remember the coverage decades later, was how appalled the reporters seemed at this revelation. Tunnels, for God’s sake! It seemed as though the concept of men burrowing underground was too simple for modern times. After Escobar’s death, when his vacation homes were thoroughly picked over by anyone with the curiosity to do so, the drug lord’s penchant for tunnels became widely known.

Fortunately for law-abiding citizens everywhere, interdiction and border security agencies added “also look for tunnels” to their playbooks, and the illegal movement of drugs, money, and people through underground passageways was halted forever.

Oh wait…

Decades later, a repeat of the Colombian debacle fell upon Mexico when Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, notorious drug lord of the Sinaloa Cartel, was spirited away (via Cobra-cycle…) from his maximum security prison cell through a tunnel under his shower stall.


Mexican authorities hoped against hope that C.H.U.D. was responsible (Image by AFP/Getty)

Unlike the days of the Escobar escape, reporters nowadays express a kind of hard-won admiration that the cartels can bring such precision and tenacity to defeating modern security technology. Don’t tell Mr. Trump, but tunnels have become a renewed part of the conversation about the Drug War and border security.

Government forces around the world may have been surprised by the number, reach, and quality of the drug smuggling tunnels they started encountering a couple decades ago, because they fell victim to the assumption that tunneling is a complex and difficult process. And let’s be fair, tunnels can become prohibitively complex when there’s a bunch of infrastructure to avoid.  Or, if the soil is unstable and tends to collapse, like sand, instead of sticking like clay, requiring careful engineering and beefed-up support. Or, when the tunnel has to be safe for construction crews, couriers, and the payload. Or when a tunnel has to last for two hundred years because it’s part of a big public works project. Basically, doing a tunnel right is hard. But smugglers don’t necessarily need or even desire this level of safety or quality control, removing many of the hurdles to tunneling.

If you haven’t read about the many cross-border tunnels that run across America’s southwest border, you should exercise a little Google-Fu and check it out. Some of the infographics are great. For some quick figures from the Feds themselves, flip to page 19 of The National Drug Threat Assessment (pdf) summary. Nobody is surprised by tunnels anymore: both the US and Mexico have made tunnel-hunting a priority. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the DEA have committed agents (aka “Tunnel Rats”) to a tunnel task force. The task force tries to locate cross-border tunnels, exploit them for maximum intel value, raid the contents, and ultimately shut them down. It’s not easy: finding these damned things requires a lot of careful surveillance and intel work, usually to identify crews and equipment at work sites. Even when they catch the tunnels, turns out it costs a lot to fully seal them with concrete. So, sometimes authorities only close the entries and leave the tunnels intact, and 10 minutes later the cartels are digging new entry points to reuse the same tunnels.

When we talk about crime, security, and the 4th Industrial Revolution, we’re usually talking about a complexity mismatch between traditional policing tactics and some disruptive new advance on the bleeding edge of technology.  For example, some talking heads are wrapped around the axle over CRISPR gene-editing because it has the potential to concentrate incredible (and thus far, incredibly beneficial) capabilities in the hands of the very few grognargs who actually understand it. While these scientists and their sponsors continue apace, the glacially-slow lawmaking process struggles to even produce a consistent library of terms, let alone meaningful public debate. On this blog we question what kinds of regulations are enforceable in a world of 3D printers, CNC mills, open source development, guerilla DIY, and massive mainstream commerce in goods and information for crime to hide within.  We ask whether combating any particular crime through controlling any particular technology is possible, a good idea, ethically justified, and at what point the cost in dollars or liberty becomes too burdensome to support.

Tunnels remind us that the post-industrial complexity mismatch can be more nuanced. What we usually hear about is criminals using some amazing new technology to defeat presumably “outdated” police methods. In reality, for lots of smuggling and drug trafficking it actually works in the opposite direction: when security becomes dependent on expensive and high-tech methods (such as saturating border areas with CCTV, thermal imaging, security personnel, SIGINT, expanded search authorities, and swarms of loitering drones),  traffickers might just diversify their tactics by using very simple technology instead. The 4th industrial revolution doesn’t only mean you can use new technologies to do amazing things, it means you can still use all the technologies that existed before, and they’re probably cheaper than they used to be.

So yeah, cartels can make submarines now, but employing more advanced technology doesn’t remove their ability to use fast boats, or hidden compartments, or shipping containers. Terrorists are arming drones now, and at some point this will disturb us enough to result in several kajillion dollars of security investment to stop the new drone menace. But the Raytheon Systems Drone’t Go There 9,000™ ROV Denial Platform won’t stop some asshole from hijacking a truck, or making simple improvised guns or bombs, or derailing a train, or starting a forest fire, or just going berserker and stabbing people. None of those methods require high-tech capability, and they’re not easy to prevent through surveillance either.

That’s the technological seduction of post-industrial security. We can spend lots of money to point all our cameras at the latest hyped-up technological threat, but it doesn’t eliminate the simpler ones. The end result is to force finite security resources to spread ever thinner to encompass the “new” problem, while rarely defeating the “old” thing first. In the meantime, old salty cops (and young wise ones) holler “There’s still no substitute for old fashioned pooooliiiiiice woooorrrrrkkkk” while struggling to set up the Bluetooth between their body-worn-cameras and tactical Segways.

With tunnels (especially the clandestine criminal kind), you can keep it very simple or you can get much more sophisticated. Either way, it pays for itself.

Tunnels aren’t new. Notwithstanding some impressive technologies the cartels are now bringing into the game, they are simple and have been around forever. Jackhammers, buckets, and headlight lamps are nobody’s definition of “bleeding edge” technology. Even North Korea has that shit. And tunnel systems are a time-tested method to level the playing field between adversaries when one enjoys air superiority, as the US does along the border. Nearly a hundred years before drug smugglers were popping up in Tijuana warehouses, British Royal Engineers were tunneling under No Man’s Land toward the Huns along the Western Front. In WWII, when US forces were island hopping through the Pacific, marooned Japanese soldiers fought doggedly from pillboxes interconnected by tunnels.

Within living memory (though this is one of those things the Vietnam Vets never talk about, so don’t ask) the Viet Cong famously put tunnels to use, with caches, passageways, staging areas, prisons, and traps. We spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to, in the words of Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay “bomb [the commies] back into the Stone Age”, only to learn with regret that some Stone Age technologies, like tunnel systems, can remain surprisingly relevant. With tunnels, the technology mismatch isn’t that tunnels can now be made with shiny new technologies too advanced to be countered. While some of the new tools and techniques used for criminal tunneling are impressive, the real issue is that the entire concept of tunneling as a modern smuggling and unconventional warfare tactic has been under-appreciated (if not outright overlooked) until recently.

Overlooked.  If you’ve been to a high school graduation or college commencement in the last few years, I bet you’ve heard this one:

“Everyone in this room has more computing power in their smartphone than the Apollo program had to land an astronaut on the moon.”

Familiar, yes?  So here’s what I mean by overlooked: if today’s smartphone has enough computing power to support a manned mission to the moon, then it is likely that the laptop of 5 years ago had that power too, and so did the desktop of 10 years ago. To computer scientists, this revelation is not just self-evident but annoyingly redundant. They’ll say “Smartphone, laptop, desktop…yes, yes, and a football stadium-sized mainframe is what they actually fucking used 50 years ago. What’s your point?”

The point is that while computer scientists understand specifically how computers work, what makes them more powerful, and what hurdles stand between today’s limits and tomorrow’s advancements, most people only know that they should always expect smaller and faster computers. When people contemplate outdated technology at all, it is usually with derision or a sense of nostalgia. Meanwhile, many old technologies are still viable and can be deployed in surprising ways. Witness the use of outdated cell phones by drug dealers and even legitimate enterprise to skirt hacking and surveillance vulnerabilities.

Tunnels are exactly this kind of old/new mismatch. When governments and legitimate enterprise want to dig a tunnel, they spend incredible amounts of money and enlist the efforts of dozens of professionals to do it. Surveyors, geologists, engineers, and exceptionally expensive equipment operated by similarly-expensive crews perform these public works projects. Due to un-forecasted complications, tunneling projects also routinely go over budget and fall behind schedule. If you’ve ever looked into insurance and bonding requirements for construction contracting (and if you haven’t, I hereby give you permission to stop denying yourself the supreme pleasure), you’ll find that “subsurface conditions” are a big question mark and a major risk everybody wants to offload on the other guy.

Even a totally legal and well-planned tunnel can encounter a poorly documented utility line, or hit an unstable pocket of soil that requires expensive additional shoring, or hit hard rock that takes longer to chew through, or requires re-planning the drilling procedure. No amount of soil sampling will produce 100% certainty that a house-sized deposit of titanium ore wasn’t inexplicably deposited by eons of tectonic and glacial action right in the middle of the dig path. Governments seek the best engineers and technologies to address those tunneling risks so contractors can get the job done and get paid, services can get extended to more people, and the risks of subterranean clusterfuck are minimized for all parties before ground is broken.

The complexity of doing modern tunnels the right way leads to a superficial assumption: that all of this stuff must be necessary to make a tunnel. We think that it must take one of these…


This decommissioned British TBM is fated to act as a post-Brexit plug. (Image Source)

…to do a tunneling job. Pictured above is a TBM (tunnel boring machine). It isn’t the largest by any means, but it isn’t a little guy either. Because it is big enough for people to occupy the tunnel at the same time, it is generally considered a TBM. If it were any smaller, it would probably be categorized as an MTBM (mini-TBM). In either case, the parts are lowered down a shaft, assembled, put into operation, continually monitored, supplied with coolants, fuel, electricity, and lots of wuv. These are the leading edge of tunneling, and represent the hot new smartphone in the analogy.

Want to see the old mainframe equivalent?


[UNIX IS/1 Version] (Image by Anthony Appleyard

Yep, that’s a jackhammer. It comes in pneumatic (shown), electric, and I’ve had the displeasure of operating a hydraulic version. Though I can’t imagine a scenario where they would be useful in tunnels, you can even get some jackhammers powered by small two-stroke engines. Sales of big stuff like TBMs and MTBMS could conceivably be tracked, even in secondary markets (though that quickly gets sketchy). Red flags may go up if EquipmentAuction.com clears an eight-foot TBM to el_borderbustero6969@cokepipeline.com. However, no-fucking-body can track sales of jackhammers and buckets. Mexican smugglers have used the “UNIX version” (aka shovels and jackhammers) to dig at least 185 cross-border tunnels into the US since 1994[1] .

This method relies heavily on labor, which is usually an enemy to secrecy, but the cartels have utilized some, ah, innovative methods to keep their workers quiet. It also requires the expertise of some talented civil engineers and no small amount of luck. It can be about as dangerous as you’d expect clandestine tunneling to be. Mexican sappers sometimes get nabbed by Mexican or US authorities at the points of entry. Hamas has lost several operatives to tunnel collapses in the last few years. This may be attributable to the sketchy soil conditions in Israel-Palestine (think of rock deposits webbed together with sand deposits…either can shift easily if the other is weakened)[2]. Or, maybe the Hamas sappers are getting screwed by Israel’s claim to have solved the problem of tunnel detection through a unique use of fiber optic cables.

So, on one extreme we’ve got the “smartphone” of tunneling, which would be the state-of-the-art tunnel boring machines (TBMs) used by big construction firms in major public works projects. On the opposite extreme we’ve got the old “1970s mainframe,” which is just a bunch of goombahs with shovels, pickaxes, and jackhammers.

“Hold the fuck up” You may say, “If you’re going to torture me with a lame cell phone analogy, you could at least be consistent about it. What happened to the Desktop PC of tunneling?”  Well, I’m skipping over it, but I have a couple good reasons:

First, just as the desktop has proven adaptable enough to remain a viable and widespread technology even as our smart-watches can now guide anti-satellite missiles or whatever, the equivalent technology in tunneling, the Horizontal Directional Drilling platform (HDD) has been here for years, is supremely flexible, and isn’t going anywhere soon. HDDs can shoot a bore for hundreds of meters at various, changing angles, and with the right tooling and techniques, the resulting bore holes can be  expanded up to a few feet in diameter. In fact, HDDs are so adaptable that it leads right to my second reason for skipping past them: recent use of HDDs for smuggling tunnels is a big-enough deal that it deserves its own discussion in a separate post that I’ll do in the future.


Think a billion dollar cartel with dozens of front companies can’t get their hands on one of these nifty contraptions? (Image by Ditch Witch)

For now, let’s just say there’s no doubt that the speed, cost, range, and relative ease of horizontal directional drilling represents a significant shift in the tools available to smugglers. The bores are so difficult to detect that most evidence of their criminal use so far has been the result of accidental collisions with a utility line, or plain bad luck[1]. Hell, some of these rigs are small enough that you can transport them in a covered semi-trailer and operate them in an indoor warehouse so the satellites won’t see it. We know Mexican cartels (and probably some enterprising smugglers elsewhere) have been using these things, but we’ve only caught a few. It’s probably safe to assume they’ve succeeded at least as often as they’ve failed.

HDD represents an advancement for subterranean smuggling that could be significant, but let’s not forget that those low-tech jackhammer and shovel crews can still do the job. No matter how it’s made, a smuggling tunnel still offers the same outstanding criminal service: if you’re a smuggler, what’s better than DIY-ing your own illegal and undetected transport corridor? Rather than running profit/loss numbers on your latest bag of tricks to sneak contraband through border security, you build your own infrastructure to bypass the formal borders entirely!

While HDDs can drill accurately and clandestinely, the bores are usually too small to accommodate a human, not to mention the ventilation/life support issues and so forth. So, the HDD tunnels are probably just passing payloads of contraband through cable systems. (That’s until Hamas or the Cartels try to DIY some low-budget Fenix Capsules). The low-tech hand-dug tunnels are still built by people, and hence, are big enough to accommodate people. These person-sized tunnels are the only ones (that we know of…) that are large enough to handle human border jumping and big shipments of bulky offerings like marijuana, arms, and cash. And just like a donkey, or a box truck, or even a submarine, a drug tunnel pays for itself with one successful shipment.

Attempting to predict what a drug cartel will do next is a surefire way to turn out wrong, yet it is hard to imagine a scenario where HDD won’t usurp hand-dug tunnels as the preferred method of cross-border subterranean smuggling. But we must learn our lesson about overlooking simple-yet-viable technologies too. Smugglers have always leveraged the unknown and the unknowable to their advantage. A few clicks can tell you how far, how deep, and how fast a particular HDD rig or (M)TBM can travel. What we still don’t know is just how deep, or how far, a drug cartel will push a crew of gang-pressed sappers. Deep under the southwest border of the US (and other borders around the world), they are finding out.


[1] Kerston, Jason. (2014, January, 6). Inside a Cartel’s Underground Drug-Tunnel for Weed. GQ Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.gq.com/story/marijuana-railroad-mexican-drug-cartel-tunnels?

[1] U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (2016) National Drug Threat Assessment Summary (DEA-DCT-DIR-001-17). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

[2] Dudeen   B. The  soil s of  Palestine (The West Bank and Gaza Strip) cur rent status and future perspectives. In:  Zdruli P. (ed.),  Steduto P.  (ed.), Lacrgnola C. (ed.),  Montanarella  L.  (ed.).  Soil resources of Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries. Bari: CIHEAM, 2001. p. 203-2 2 5 (Options Méditerranéennes: Série B. Etu des et Recherches; n . 34)




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