Magazine article Geographical

Underground: Klaus Dodds Is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and Author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

Magazine article Geographical

Underground: Klaus Dodds Is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and Author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

Article excerpt

'SUBTERRANEAN' is often used in English to denote two things: first, the processes and events that occur under the Earth's surface, and second, making reference to the secret and concealed nature of political life.

Some of this can be highly imaginative; many cultures have mythologised about underground worlds filled with earthly forces, extraordinary peoples and secret worlds. As a metaphor, the underground invokes a politics of resistance and subversion and/or the shady world of cartels, terror groups, and secret societies.

Subterranean geopolitics works with the intersection of the geopolitical and geophysical. The underground activities of drug cartels in Mexico provide a good, if sinister, example of what is possible. For the last few years, the US and Mexican governments have uncovered ever more evidence of excavation and tunnelling in and around the borderlands. Some of them will be discovered and destroyed, but it is estimated that while a cross-border tunnel might take six to nine months to dig, it only has to be operational for a few hours in order to recover its construction costs. The tunnel itself might only be 500m in length and the entry/exit points hidden inside warehouses. Some tunnels can be longer and large enough to drive a car through them. The first such drug tunnel was discovered in 1990, and to this day US law enforcement agencies have no idea how many tunnels might be criss-crossing the US-Mexican border.

Tunnels have also proved to be essential accomplices in allowing senior members of Mexican drug cartels to evade capture, notably El Chapo, the former head of the Sinaloa cartel. With drug cartels generating billions of dollars in annual profit, their investment in border infrastructure is uncannily similar to law enforcement agencies in the United States. Both cartels and US border security agencies engage in engineering projects and depend upon geological knowledge and topographical intelligence above and below the ground. The Otay Mesa in the southern part of San Diego, close to the international border, is a low elevation bentonite clay plateau. Clay is easy to dig and excavate, and the Otay Mesa plays host to a number of drug tunnels. As the area in question, close to an immigration check-point, is also a busy warehouse district, it is common to see numerous trucks coming and going.

Surveillance is challenging because any seismic monitoring of subterranean borderlands is compromised by background noise, and above-ground surveillance often involves making split-second judgements about whether a truck is carrying water melons rather than marijuana. …

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