- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has asked the Mexican government to enact legislation to criminalize the construction or financing of border tunnels between the United States and Mexico.

In letters to Mexican President Vicente Fox and members of the Mexican Congress, the senators — led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat — said 40 tunnels into the United States have been discovered since 2001 and urged the Mexican officials to enact legislation to crack down on those involved.

“Our countries must continue to work together to address this problem by discovering and shutting down those who build, finance or use border tunnels for illegal purposes,” the senators said, urging Mexico to enact legislation similar to a bill offered March 2 by Mrs. Feinstein to criminalize the construction or financing of border tunnels.

In addition to Mrs. Feinstein, the letter was signed by Republican Sens. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, Conrad Burns of Montana, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Jim Talent of Missouri, and Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Maria Cantwell of Washington.

The Department of Homeland Security has said tunnels typically have been built to smuggle drugs, but have quickly transitioned into passages for smuggling illegal aliens. The senators said they were concerned they could also be used to smuggle weapons and terrorists into the United States.

The Feinstein legislation was prompted by the discovery in January of a sophisticated tunnel between the United States and Mexico that could have been used to traffic drugs, humans, guns or terrorists between the two countries. The tunnel, which is more than 2,000 feet long and connected warehouses in Tijuana to San Diego, was the largest and most sophisticated illegal cross-border underpass Mexican and U.S. authorities said they had ever found.

Equipped with a pulley and ventilation system, the tunnel was six feet wide and 12 feet high. It had a cement floor and lights. Authorities said they were unsure how long the tunnel had been in operation.

That tunnel originated under a warehouse 150 yards south of the border, near the Tijuana airport, and surfaced about a half-mile north of the border in an abandoned warehouse in Otay Mesa, a community within the city of San Diego developed as an industrial area in 1985. Otay Mesa is California’s largest commercial land-border port and one of the busiest commercial land-border crossings in the United States.

Mrs. Feinstein’s bill, known as the Border Tunnel Prevention Act, would impose up to 20 years’ imprisonment for constructing or financing a tunnel crossing the border into the United States and up to 10 years for anyone who negligently permits others to construct or use an unauthorized tunnel on their land.

It also would punish any person who uses a tunnel to smuggle aliens, weapons, drugs, terrorists or illegal goods by doubling the sentence for the underlying offense if convicted; calls for the forfeiture of the assets of those involved; and authorizes and funds homeland security efforts to fill in tunnels.

The bill is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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