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Committee gives preliminary OK to bill toughening penalties for border tunnels

Rep. Ben Quayle, right, listens Tuesday during a House Judiciary Committee markup vote on the Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012, a bill cosponsored by the Phoenix Republican. The bill passed on a voice vote. (Cronkite News Service photo by Dustin Volz)

WASHINGTON – Citing the high number of cross–border tunnels that pop up in Arizona and California, a House committee Tuesday passed a bill toughening laws against the use of tunnels for smuggling underneath the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012 said there has been “a dramatic increase” in tunnels discovered on the Southwest border in recent years. That is particularly true in Arizona and California, where authorities have found 74 and 40 tunnels, respectively, since fiscal 2006.

“This legislation is vital to the country and my home state of Arizona to combat these cross–border tunnels that are used by ruthless criminal organizations,” said Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Phoenix, a co–sponsor of the measure.

The bill would broaden the current law against tunnel smugglers by also making it a crime to conspire to build, use or finance a border tunnel. Currently the law only allows prosecution of suspects who actually engage in such activity or anyone who “recklessly disregards” tunnel construction or use.

The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee by a voice vote following about 20 minutes of discussion and now heads to the full House for consideration.

Law enforcement officials told a congressional panel last summer that they had found more than 90 illegal tunnels under Arizona’s border with Mexico, the most of any state. The vast majority were in Nogales, Ariz.: Eighty–eight of the 153 tunnels discovered under the border since the 1990s surfaced in the border town.

Quayle pointed to last week’s discovery by U.S. border agents of a 110–foot tunnel underneath Nogales as evidence that more “enhanced investigative and prosecutorial tools” are needed. In that incident, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they seized 550 pounds of marijuana from inside the tunnel.

Quayle said the growth in the number of border tunnels and the increasingly resourceful tactics employed by drug cartels are evidence that stronger penalties are necessary.

“As a result of these drug–trafficking techniques, Phoenix has become one of the main distribution centers of illegal drugs to dealers across the country,” he said. “Without enhanced investigative and prosecutorial tools to stop the flow of illicit drugs at the border, these criminal organizations will always be one step ahead of law officials.”

More than 90 smugglers’ tunnels have been discovered on the Arizona border since 1990, the government reported last summer, more than half of all the tunnels discovered on the Southwest border during that time. (Map courtesy U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

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