Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Making the Subterranean Visible: Security, Tunnels, and the United States-Mexico Border

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Making the Subterranean Visible: Security, Tunnels, and the United States-Mexico Border

Article excerpt

"We're literally forcing them to go underground."

--James Dinkins, Exec. Assoc. Dir., Homeland Security Investigations, 2011

What constitutes secure borders continues to be a highly contested debate in U.S. society and politics. The most visible outcome of this debate is the unprecedented miles of barriers now lining U.S. borders, but the debate also conflates longstanding issues related to crossing borders with a more recent highly charged issue: national security (Heyman 2008). At present, expenditures to increase border security are unparalleled in U.S. history. The monetary tab for fence construction and maintenance alone is estimated at $20 million per mile given a twenty-year lifespan (Jones 2011), yearly budgets for U.S. Customs and Border Protection have climbed to over $3.5 billion in 2011, while the number of border patrol agents has increased from 3,500 in the early 1990s to over 18,500 in 2011 (U.S. Customs and Border Protection 2012). Yet, dissatisfied with such investments, Arizona state legislators recently suggested funding their own volunteer-trained Arizona Special Missions Unit to guard the state's southern border (Wingett 2012), and others were recently fundraising to build a fence across 200 miles of the state's desert territory (Steller 2012).

Ironically, as the struggle for secure borders becomes increasingly fixated at the surface, the discovery of illegal tunnels under the border (over 100 since the year 2000) opens up a vast new uncontrolled space to compromised security. Thus far, tunnel discoveries have been predominately associated with drug trafficking. There has also been mention of people coming through tunnels (U.S. Custom and Border Protection 2009; Senator Jon Kyi cited in the Nogales International 2012), though whether these people are migrants or involved in trafficking is not always clear, and certainly further speculation clearly associates tunnels with potential human and weapon trafficking (U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement 2010). To the best of my knowledge, and with some corroboration, there is no evidence of tunnels having provided access to terrorists or weapons of mass destruction (Leiken and Brooke 2006). Regardless, national concern for the possibility certainly exists (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency 2006; Feinstein 2012a). Clearly, what constitutes security shifts through time and space.

Geographers have long critiqued the practice of sovereignty by democratic states in their efforts to legitimate relations of power between themselves and their citizens (Purcell and Nevins 2005). Demonstrating security at territorial boundaries is a fundamental way sovereignty is practiced. Security is reproduced through the ongoing exchanges between citizens and state actors, as Mark Purcell and Joseph Nevins argue, but also through other daily acts of boundary making and enforcement, discursive narratives which drive such practices (Jones 2011), and visible markers of security in the material landscape itself (Heyman 2008). Yet in this post-9/11 era, geographers have argued that the reach of borders is becoming more expansive and obscured and with this, sovereignty practices more distant and diffused (Johnson and others 2011). Border enforcement is rescaled to state and municipal ordinances, and now extends offshore, inwardly, and even biometrically onto bodies (Amoore 2006; Winders 2007; Coleman 2009; Mountz 2011). In each of these examples, the practice of territorial security via border enforcement is displaced to less-visible spaces. If and how border extensions create challenges for the state when it needs to demonstrate geopolitical security to citizens has yet to be considered.

The conflicting tensions of security demonstration and obscured borders are explored in this paper through a critical analysis of the discoveries of illegal tunnels through the U.S.-Mexico border. Daily attempts to demonstrate security are insufficient in addressing the societal issues that drive and are victim to drug trafficking. …

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