Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Senator seeks crackdown on border tunnels to stop smugglers from Mexico


A U.S. lawmaker proposed a bill on Tuesday making tunneling under the U.S. border a federal crime, in a bid to crack down on a surge in the activity by drug and human smugglers from Mexico.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed a legislative package making the financing or construction of a tunnel beneath an international border into the United States a criminal act, punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

Border police have found 40 tunnels running under the United State's borders since the September 11 attacks. The longest, which was found on January 26, ran for 2,400 feet from Tijuana to a warehouse in Otay Mesa, California, where Feinstein gave a news conference.

"Our borders are our nation's first line of defense, and we have got to throw the book at the criminals who would build these tunnels," Feinstein told reporters gathered at the warehouse, just a few hundred yards (meters) north of the border fence with Mexico.

"For years smugglers have tried to go around our border checkpoints. Now they are trying to go under them. This is a serious issue not just for San Diego and California, but for the country," she added.

At present, digging a tunnel under the United States' borders with Mexico and Canada is not itself illegal.

Law enforcement sources said most charges brought in connection with tunnels usually relate to drug smuggling offenses, not to the digging or financing itself.

Feinstein said the bill also seeks to punish property owners who permit others to construct or use an unauthorized tunnel or passage on their land with a jail term of up to 10 years, and the possible forfeiture of assets.

All but one of the 40 tunnels found under the U.S. border had originated in Mexico, where they had been used by criminals to smuggle narcotics and people into the United States.

Of these 21 ran beneath the frontier between California and Mexico, where border police have found eight since January alone.

They ranged from short, shallow passageways dubbed "gopher holes" by law enforcement, to sophisticated "mega-tunnels," some equipped with lighting, ventilation systems and even air-conditioning.

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