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Tunnel Visions

Notes on the underground, from Sinaloa to Gaza

On October 11, 2023, Mexican drug cartels appeared to be entering, at least symbolically, into the armed conflict between Israel and Palestine. That day, a Mexican reporter, known for his coverage of drug trafficking, published a thread on social media claiming that members of the Sinaloa Cartel—led for decades by the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—had made an alliance with the Palestinian political and military organization Hamas. The thread on X is sketchy as to exactly when and how this came to be, but it states that around 2002, a source was in contact with “colleagues in Palestine” who had firsthand knowledge that Sinaloa traffickers financed Hamas terrorists in exchange for training in tunnel-building techniques, enabling them to transport drugs from Tijuana to San Diego. Despite the continents, languages, and sociopolitical contexts between them, Hamas and shadowy Mexicans were supposedly in cahoots, a double threat to transnational security. The allegation, later disseminated across media and social networks, was based on a single phone interview with retired Israel Defense Forces Colonel Dany Tirza, considered a security expert and known as the architect of the seven-hundred-kilometer (some 440 miles) West Bank wall. No evidence other than hearsay was presented.

Tunnels at the U.S.-Mexico border have, of course, a history that extends beyond the outlandish claims of a Sinaloan-Gazan clandestine corridor. But our collective understanding of those tunnels, as with most of the real transnational phenomena involving informal economies, is distorted by narratives of national security about drug trafficking, undocumented migration, and terrorism, and mediated by press coverage that is, in turn, based on official information, often coming directly from military institutions offering lucrative “solutions” to those very problems.

Let’s state the obvious: it is implausible, if not ridiculous, to believe that Mexican traffickers would need to approach terrorists on the other side of the world to learn how to make tunnels. Since 1990, around two hundred cross-border tunnels have been located, of which about sixty have been labeled “sophisticated,” that is, those that extend deeper and farther and are often outfitted with ventilation, lighting, water pumps, electricity, and transport rails. They were made using manual labor and with conventional tools, such as jackhammers, when they were not improvised out of the old pipes and drainage networks of border municipalities.

The Mexican reporter failed to ask his single source some basic questions: Why were Sinaloan traffickers unable to obtain the same training from Mexican engineers? Assuming they had to travel to Gaza, how did the traffickers manage to elude Israeli intelligence? And just how did they communicate with Hamas terrorists? Did the Sinaloans speak sufficient Arabic? Are we to believe that sometime around 2002, the traffickers found and hired an interpreter in tightly occupied Gaza? Would they have used English? (Why then was no one in El Chapo’s crew able to speak the language when actor Sean Penn interviewed Guzmán in 2016?) Have the traffickers begun to use the Google Translate app for specific technical engineering instructions? Did they have good internet reception in their clandestine, perhaps underground, meeting locations?

An internet fringe media outlet later picked up an alternate version of Colonel Tirza’s story, in which he claimed that Israel’s Mossad agents tracked three Hamas militants who traveled in 2018 to Tijuana, Mexico, to lead a tunnel-building workshop right at the border. But did Israeli intelligence alert United States or Mexican authorities? Were the alleged terrorists arrested and debriefed? Why was the story recast six years later, just as Israel is being accused of genocide in Gaza?

Mexican traffickers, for their part, seemed entirely capable of building sophisticated tunnels way before the alleged encounters with Hamas engineers. As early as May of 1990, U.S. media had already reported the discovery of a 270-foot tunnel, thirty feet deep, near the border crossing at Douglas, Arizona. Customs agents said it was “something out of a James Bond movie,” with concrete reinforcement and a hydraulic system, which cost about $1.5 million. Authorities estimated that it had operated for about six months, although they offered no solid evidence to support this claim. And while the tunnel seemed like a secure and profitable investment for smuggling—more than a ton of cocaine was seized—army geologists located it using advanced seismic profiling equipment that has since exponentially improved.

El Chapo escaped from a maximum-security prison in 2015 through an even more sophisticated mile-long tunnel, equipped with lighting, ventilation, and a motorcycle on rails. Even though it was an embarrassment for the government, Mexican authorities granted immediate and unrestricted access to domestic and international media, with plenty of time for reporters to photograph and film inside from one end of the tunnel to the other.

Israel, conversely, limits media access and imposes strict military escorts for correspondents in Gaza, making it impossible to verify their claims about tunnels underneath medical facilities and schools allegedly used by Hamas fighters to take shelter and hide weapons and hostages from the invading Israeli military. It should not go unsaid that many of the tunnels—whether used by Hamas or not—were in fact built in the 1980s, when Israel occupied Gaza, years before Hamas came into existence in 1987.

To demystify the narrative even further, most of the tunnels detected at the U.S.-Mexico border are manually carved, unfinished, rudimentary “gopher holes.” They were first discovered during the last years of marijuana smuggling in the 1990s, before legal cannabis became a billion-dollar industry in the United States. In the twenty-first century, synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and fentanyl make it across border checkpoints aboveground and in broad daylight, virtually undetectable in small odorless loads. In 2021, 86.3 percent of convicted fentanyl traffickers were U.S. citizens, not Mexicans. Nearly 99 percent of the consumer population are U.S. citizens. Only .02 percent of undocumented immigrants apprehended by the Border Patrol were carrying any fentanyl. Tunnels, while flashy news items, offer at best an outmoded and ineffective route for contraband. The likelihood of detection and construction efforts outweigh the slim gains in a drug market currently dominated by opioids and driven primarily by, and for, U.S. citizens.

Mountains Out of Molehills

As a journalist and scholar originally from the border city of Juárez, with more than two decades of experience investigating transnational securitarian narratives about the drug trade, I am convinced of the artificiality of most official discourse concerning Mexico’s so-called cartels. The perception of their fantastic power and reach allows U.S. and Mexican authorities to perpetuate ever-increasing military budgets along with flagrant abuses and crimes against civilians—more precisely, against poor brown civilians.

In his book War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine (2023), journalist and antiwar activist Norman Solomon recalled a fact that is often forgotten in U.S. history: the structural and symbolic effects of the 1947 National Security Act of Congress that by 1949 changed the official name of the War Department—established in 1789 with the founding of the country—to the Department of Defense. Consider the phrase “defense spending,” Solomon writes:

We’ve heard it countless times. It seems natural. And yes, there is an agency called the Department of Defense (until 1947, the War Department). But an agency’s official name doesn’t make it true. The ubiquitous use of phrases like “defense budget” and “defense spending”—virtually always written with a lowercase “d”—equates U.S. military operations with defense.

We must perceive the U.S. national security agenda as legitimizing a permanent—and extremely violent—intervention in the border region. It manages this through the spectacularized idea that Mexico is overrun by narcos who are waging a war between cartels and against the government and civil society.

As I argue in my most recent work, a key transformation occurred on April 8, 1986, when Ronald Reagan signed a national security directive designating drug trafficking organizations as national security threats, effectively associating them with armed insurgencies and terrorist groups that had been “linked to drug smuggling primarily to finance their activities.” This inaugurated the narrative plot that sustains stories like the Sinaloan-Gazan collaboration. Guy Debord once warned that contemporary society functions within a model of life dominated by spectacle. Or, in other words: propaganda, advertising, and the consumption of entertainment. But the spectacle is not an addition to reality or a way of distorting it; it effectively replaces our collective perception of reality.

“The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people mediated by images,” Debord wrote in 1967. Half a century later, the spectacle of supposed narco violence is visible in frequent videos and photographs of alleged traffickers showing off an arsenal or staging shootouts in different states of the country. The images, without context and with little verifiable information beyond the assumptions through which they are interpreted by the media and consumed by the public, later coincide with numerous cultural productions inside and outside Mexico that further inscribe government securitarian narratives.

This is how cross-border tunnels, by virtue of their existence, became terrorist tunnels.

Dig Dogma

There was a time when tunnels had an entirely different place in the Western imagination. Far from any connection to terror, contraband, or human smuggling, they were seen as a necessary passage to enlightenment, self-discovery, and freedom. In Alexandre Dumas’s nineteenth-century novel The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès and Abbé Faria attempt to excavate their way out of unjust imprisonment by a tyrannical government that criminalizes the poor and political dissidents. Digging a tunnel is an act of resistance and an opportunity for education, as the learned Faria imparts wisdom to Dantès while they crack open the solid ground.

Tunnels, while flashy news items, offer at best an outmoded and ineffective route for contraband.

Andy Dufresne must also dig himself out of prison in the film The Shawshank Redemption (1994), a retelling of Dumas’s classic. Wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife, Andy flees from a penitentiary system that the prison warden has turned into a racket for his own gain while cynically professing to be a Christian. Like Dantès, Andy digs the tunnel with years-long patience, reconciling himself with his past mistakes and excesses while improving the precarious living conditions of his fellow prisoners. His freedom ultimately brings down the criminal structure of the prison. Exposed to the media, the warden commits suicide, and justice is served because of Andy’s escape.

The tunnel is also the last resort for survival against state violence in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), when ex-convict Jean Valjean carries his wounded son-in-law through the pestilence of the Parisian sewer system after soldiers annihilate a student uprising that the young idealist had joined. Even in a galaxy far, far away, a natural tunnel allows the heroic rebel leaders to escape from certain death in the Star Wars episode The Last Jedi (2017).

In the real world, and against the supremacy of drones and other surveillance technologies, American studies scholar Camilla Fojas argues for recourse to the underground: “The tunnel and tunneling, submarine passage, and other forms of taking cover and concealment are part of the repertoire of creative moves from the Global South that allow moving bodies to escape unnoticed and unseen from the aerial vantage of imperial power.” In 1963, a group of German students spent five months digging a tunnel to traverse the Berlin Wall. Their effort was narrated by the West as an act of Cold War-era defiance and liberation from Soviet control. Why do Western powers deny the same status to the more than two million Palestinians—the vast majority now displaced by the war—who lived under the colonial violence of what Human Rights Watch called Israel’s “open-air prison” of Gaza? Don’t they have the same right to seek shelter and resistance in a tunnel?

Media scholar Juan Llamas-Rodriguez argues that a narrative of tunnel warfare—a concept extrapolated from military research—is behind the racist portrayal of a hostile and invading Global South, prevalent in everything from video games like Call of Juarez to the now-frequent provocations from right-wing politicians to bomb the Mexican side of the border. Mainstream books on either side of the border—from the nonfiction of Mexican American author Luis Alberto Urrea to the narrative journalism of Salvadoran reporter Óscar Martínez—often reproduce the same problematic depictions. In the words of Llamas-Rodriguez, “Every border-tunnel mediation is also a border-making project.”

According to declassified files obtained by researchers Tom Secker and Matthew Alford, the Department of Defense, the CIA, the DEA, and the FBI have worked closely with film and television productions that deal with security issues. It’s what Secker and Alford call “national security entertainment”:

National security entertainment promotes violent, self-regarding, American-centric solutions to international problems based on twisted readings of history. Furthermore, we found that the government has been the decisive factor in both the creation and termination of projects, and has manipulated content in much more serious ways than has ever been known.

The protagonist of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s novel Amulet (1999), an Uruguayan exile trapped in a bathroom of Mexico’s national university under a military occupation—partially triggered by Red Scare paranoia—prophesizes that Latin America’s most revered writers, Jorge Luis Borges and César Vallejo, will be read “in the tunnels” of 2045, and that European counterparts like Franz Kafka will be rediscovered in 2101. I appreciate here Chris Andrews’s translation of túneles (tunnels) as the “underground,” that is, the place of Dostoyevskian dissent, of a fight against consensus, of rebellion, of non-mediated knowledge. Literary scholar Carolina Ferrer considers Amulet itself a tunnel, following Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar’s “theory of the tunnel,” that allows the reader “to be deeply involved in the co-construction of a fundamentally transgressive novel.” There is an urgent need to reclaim the concept of the tunnel from the racist media’s representations of Mexican traffickers and Islamic terrorists, to disconnect them from pervasive securitarian narratives. We need to walk through tunnels again as paths of insubordination, enlightenment, and freedom. What would it be like to leave behind the exhausted paradigms of mainstream media and to instead read from tunnels, and not so much about them? To occupy tunnels and expropriate them from official discourse, to resignify them and speak from the space of cross-border transgression?

Rise of the Killing Machines

Israeli militarist ventures are making that nation the global leader in the detection and destruction of tunnels. In 2012, during a border technology conference in El Paso, Texas, Israeli Brigadier General Roie Elkabetz had a decidedly sinister description of the military occupation of Palestine: “We have learned lots from Gaza . . . It’s a great laboratory.” The lucrative transfer of Israeli security technologies—including tunnel detection—has indeed become a marketable laboratory for the expansive militarization of numerous regions the world over.

We must perceive the U.S. “national security” agenda as legitimizing a permanent—and extremely violent—intervention in the region.

It is hardly a coincidence, in this context, to find the Israeli military-industrial complex promoting U.S. anti-immigrant and antidrug security policies against Mexico. Israel’s system of repression and social control through 645 checkpoints and barriers in the West Bank, along with the ubiquitous technologies of mass surveillance documented by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is a global model and point of reference.

Colonel Tirza, the IDF veteran who kicked off the current tunnel scare, has been making baseless allegations since 2018, when he told the Israeli TV channel i24 News about the alliance between unidentified Mexican traffickers and nameless Palestinian militants. His vague, alarmist claims are contrasted by his very specific policy recommendations, namely an increase in border security infrastructure and the expansion of military capabilities. In 2004, the UN’s International Court of Justice found Tirza’s West Bank wall to be in violation of international law. He maintains, nonetheless, that his design saves lives. Tirza, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has expressed his enthusiastic support for Donald Trump’s plans to extend a similar wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

The production of weapons and equipment for surveillance of occupied spaces is the niche market of Israeli companies such as Elbit Systems. Its Hermes drones were the first unmanned aerial vehicles to fly across the U.S.-Mexico border in 2004, and they regularly surveil the Gaza sky beyond the West Bank wall. The same company was awarded a $145 million contract in 2014 to build smart towers with motion sensors and cameras with a range of over seven miles in Nogales, Arizona. By 2016, Elbit Systems was partnering with the IDF and the U.S. government to develop anti-tunnel technology for the Mexican border.

Then there is NICE Systems, a company created by former IDF soldiers who landed a contract with controversial anti-immigrant sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. Or the Golan Group, also founded by former Israeli military officers who trained immigration and customs agents in Krav Maga. Between 1946 and 2022, the United States gave Israel a total of $317 billion in aid packages, of which $225 billion was earmarked for military operations. In 2023 alone, $1.934 billion was allocated to develop more tunnel detection technology.

On the Mexican side, in 2008 Elbit Systems won another contract—for more than $20 million—from the Mexican Air Force that included the same Hermes drone used in antidrug operations. In 2009, Mexico’s Federal Judicial Police paid another multimillion-dollar contract for drones manufactured by the Israeli firm Aeronautics Defense Systems. The same company secured a long-range drone sale for the Mexican government in 2015. In 2011, the Israeli company NSO Group exported to Mexico the notorious cyber espionage software known as “Pegasus,” which the military continues to use illegally against journalists, activists, and human rights defenders. Colonel Tirza himself is the CEO of Yozmot Ltd., a security company seeking contracts with U.S. and Mexican law enforcement to implement body cameras with facial recognition features for police officers to scan crowds, a technology first tested on Palestinians.

Undergrounds for Concern

The Sinaloan-Gazan connection is not the first attempt to establish a link, however improbable, between Mexican drug trafficking and Islamic terrorism. The right-wing activist organization Judicial Watch reported in 2015 that a jihadist cell of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had established a Mexican base of operations in the precarious Anapra neighborhood on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, where they allegedly received support from smugglers of the Juárez Cartel to facilitate the terrorists’ border crossing at El Paso, Texas. The report, supposedly based on anonymous sources from Mexico’s army and federal police, was emphatically refuted by border authorities in the United States.

What does it mean to pacify? And who gets to conduct the pacification?

For Israeli anthropologist and activist Jeff Halper, the dubious links between terrorism, drug trafficking, and migration are a consequence of the same security model partly conceived by Israel in its decades of military occupation of Palestine. All of this is related to the foundation of a “global pacification system,” which operates as a transnational platform for a permanent war against enemies of the Global North. It is based on a securitarian narrative that constantly concocts new threats to the world order. The main engine of the global war apparatus is the U.S. defense system, whose annual budget—the largest on the planet—was $877 billion in 2022, larger than that of the next ten countries combined.

What does it mean to pacify? And who gets to conduct the pacification? Halper notes that since World War II, global powers stopped confronting each other directly. This does not mean less violence but rather a change in the affected populations. Over the next decade, the United States’ post-9/11 wars displaced more than thirty-seven million people.

This process of “global pacification” is what cultural anthropologist Allen Feldman calls a system of “securocratic wars.” He points to the United States’ “deterritorialized campaigns of public safety,” focused not on the conquest of a territory or against a specific enemy but on containing the infiltration of territories and populations. New political, economic, and biological threats to the social order are identified. Under the paradigm of “securocratic wars,” Feldman notes, “the Other ceases to be a colonial subject, a proletarian, a disenfranchised but struggling racial minority, a communist” and instead “re-appears as the drug dealer, the person living with AIDS, the illegal immigrant, the asylum seeker, and the terrorist.”

Regardless of their limited veracity and questionable journalistic merit, media stories that deliberately conflate these manufactured threats function within “a perpetual motion machine of misclassification, in which the categories of terrorist and criminal can be used to cover a variety of floating objects and scenarios.” While maintaining the fictitious relevance of cross-border tunnels, the DEA identifies the sons of El Chapo as the main culprits behind trafficking fentanyl to the United States despite evidence pointing to multiple routes from Canada and overseas, and the domestic rise of clandestine drug labs. This information campaign has mobilized Republican governors and congressmen, who, like former president Trump, have proposed bombing regions of Mexico to eliminate fentanyl distribution at its alleged primary source. The global pacifying industry is just getting started.

Denying civilians the protection of underground cover to organize and resist, Israel continues the horrific bombing of Gaza, which has claimed the lives of more than thirty-three thousand people, without counting those still trapped under the rubble. Is this the model for other military campaigns against civilians in the Global South? Are we to suffer the same monstrous destruction at the U.S.-Mexico border? Is my native city of Juárez, with my family and friends in it, next? I hope that at least they find a tunnel strong enough to survive the imperialist urges of their menacing neighbors north of the border. And then I expect them, safe underground, to organize the resistance.