Tunnelling borders

The growing ubiquity of militarized borders has with it produced a subterranean network of cross-border tunnels. In tunnelling, global “urban burrowers” have begun to compose a new layer of multitude grounded in the struggles against global hegemony itself.

National borders are typically viewed as lines drawn with barbed wire, or fixed by concrete and steel. Politicians laud 'walls' as effective solutions to tides of foreign invaders aiming to steal jobs, terrorize populations, and dilute national identities. Beyond the ‘security theater’, walls are an architectural fallacy propped up by popular pretense and political fantasy, gross contractor profiteeringlegal exception, institutional racism, and often brute colonization.

More recently, they have served as key infrastructure for a post-9/11 techno-militaristic opportunism, an internationalization of border security, and as a mock-hydrological system of surplus labor exploitation and incarceration. They also disguise a sub-political landscape of interlacing activities that operate through the wall in various shadowy vectors, many of which—due to increased migration criminalization, aerial surveillance, trade blockades, foreign occupation, and chronic bi-national corruption—have been forced to coalesce underground, driven further into both peril and “illegality.” But walls don't merely sort or displace cross-border flows, rather they trigger informal tunneling as a way to compile unauthorized movements into a universal bottom class of extreme suspect. By forcing globalization's “antagonists” to retreat underground it becomes a lot easier to treat their cause as its own kind of act of guerilla war, which only precipitates a legal rationale for warfare in retaliation.


US-Mexico border, Arizona. Eduardo Barraza/Demotix.

It’s no surprise then that parts of the US-Mexico border already look like the West Bank, while Kashmir conjures images of the Korean DMZ; or that Rio and Gaza have gradually come to  reflect one another. Neither is it surprising that India, like Israel, is completely walling itself off from its Muslim neighbors, while most of the Arab world evolves as a region cleaved by military fence construction. Turkey’s proximity as a gateway from the Middle East to Europe, and more critically as Syria’s neighbor, has instigated a spate of border projects along its eastern edge as well as with Greece and Bulgaria. With the hardest stop gaps already in place like the US-Mexico fence, Israel’s dangerous barrier with Egypt, the Spanish fence installation in Ceuta and Melilla on Morocco’s coast, or the entire Mediterranean Sea and patrolled coastal waters surrounding the Caribbean and Australia for that matter, new walls continue to spawn from South Mexico and Myanmar to Russia’s borders with Georgia.

If current trends continue, even the lesser barricades are destined to become full blown militarized border zones before they fall. With global migration soaring at the thrusts of perpetual war, climate catastrophe and ‘disaster capitalism’, deepening civil conflicts, and the ever-polarizing effects of trans-global capitalism on systemic inequality, national borders are being reinscribed as part and parcel of a more universal carceral frontier composed of precarious settlements, refugee camps and detention centers. The more border zones urbanize, the greater the current model of securitization will unite them with all its usual subterfuge.

Yet just as every wall casts a shadow, so too does each inspire its own mechanism of subversion.  Each wall invariably serves as the instrument of its own undoing, its own intrinsic failure. Migrants, refugees, smugglers, coyotes, cartels, militants, militaries themselves, and various ‘others’ set in to motion have never failed to devise ingenious ways to pass unseen. The wall is an object that inadvertently designs its own negation in this way. It is a surface ultimately defined by the pressures exerted upon it, destined not to stand as a monument to efficacy but to its own delusional failure.

Geographer Michael Dear (2013) states, “Partition is the crudest tool in the armory of geopolitics, an overt confession of failed diplomacy.” Where there have been walls there too have often been tunnels. ‘The tunnel’ is the crude by-product of 'the wall' itself, a spatial sibling inseparably and geopolitically locked in a broken embrace. Tunnels and subterranean habitats have a long fascinating history dating back to the dawn of human kind. Military tunnels, mining and trench warfare have their own ongoing epic archeological narratives to tell. But so does the emerging micro-niche of cross-border tunnels whose excavation cannot be delinked from the history of the nation-state and the wall itself. Most have sprung up from smuggling or as a means of escape.

It remains somewhat of a myth, but the first border tunnels along the US’s southern boundary were allegedly said to have existed during the Prohibition era. The US, as Peter Andreas chronicles in his latest book, was largely built by smugglers. It’s also well known that both the CIA and Eastern German citizens constructed separate tunnels of their own for espionage and escape prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, contexts that hardly seem questioned today. During the siege of Sarajevo in the early nineties the Bosnian Army constructed a secret tunnel linking the city with the Bosnian controlled territory below Sarajevo’s airport. It was used to smuggle in aid, supplies and weapons while also escorting people out. In 2005, a tunnel was discovered under the border between British Columbia and Washington apparently designed to smuggle marijuana. There are numerous other past examples, but the trend has hardly slowed, nor should we expect it to.

Not only has history shown the ‘underground’ to be a vital space of transgression where the limits of (super)power have been contested and circumnavigated, but ‘the tunnel’ as a spatial political paradigm has proven humanity’s greater will to engineer triumph over unlawful barriers time and time again. Vietnam’s Củ Chi tunnels being perhaps the greatest example in recent history. Or, even the Al Qaeda and Taliban caves in Afghanistan. It only makes sense that with increased walls and a globalized surveillance state comes a new contingency of tunnelers and communities persisting underground.

These groups, while not directly linked, represent the vertical spatial practice of geography that Eyal Weizman first outlined on openDemocracy with his essay “The Politics of Verticality” (2002). Stephen Graham continues to explore this at a larger geopolitical scale and stresses the necessity “to link the proliferation of tunnel complexes with the extraordinary intensification of state-backed technoscientific scrutiny that has marked vertical geopolitics over the past few decades.” (2012). I would contend these “urban burrowers” have begun to compose a new layer of multitude grounded in the struggles against global hegemony itself.


Gaza tunnel. Abdel Rahim Khatib/Demotix.

On October 7th this year, the Israeli Defense Forces uncovered a 1,700 meter long cross-border tunnel stretching from the periphery of Gaza to the outskirts of a Kibbutz. Hamas claimed its intentions were to capture Israeli soldiers while preparing for Israel’s next round of hostilities. With Pentagon developed tunnel-detection technology, Israel and Egypt have destroyed much of Gaza’s highly sophisticated and nationally sanctioned tunnel network, rumored once to number over a thousand. They serve as both Gaza’s economic lifelines for obtaining goods via Egypt, and as Hamas’ controlled passages for arms movement and subterranean warfare. Essentially, the Israeli blockade of Gaza’s borders has left the Palestinians with no other means but to nationalize their tunnel infrastructure for basic trade. It's estimated the ongoing destruction of these tunnels is costing Gaza millions.

By forcing the Palestinians to tunnel Israel has turned the bulk of their economy into a military target, since the economic tunnels cannot be accurately distinguished from Hamas’ militarized tunnels. The blockade is an insidious way for Israel to force Gaza to dig so the tunnels' ambiguity can then be leveraged as a case being treated as legally-contentious “dual-use” targets. dubiously legitimating Israel’s perpetual campaign of urbicide against Palestinian statehood.

Ever since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Israel has maintained extreme border vigilance after discovering an extensive network of “underground villages” connected with more complex Hezbollah bunkers, prompting the IDF to prepare in mock tunnels for a future “tunnel war.” Reports from a Lebanese newspaper last year claimed that Hezbollah controls an even more secretive series of tunnels and bunkers extending into Syrian territory.

Just a few weeks ago on October 30th, US federal agents shut down a narco “super tunnel” stretching 1/3 of a mile across the US-Mexico border joining warehouses in San Diego and Tijuana. It was one of the most elaborate of the roughly 140 tunnels that have been discovered along the border over the last twenty years, complete with its own electric rail cart system, ventilation, and concrete foundation. In Nogales, Arizona, migrants and drug smugglers alike have been known to use tunnels and the massive floodwater drainage canals straddling the border as a means of movement. And since the Border Patrol beefed up its own roboticized subterranean policing additional makeshift tunnels have been found hacking into the existing sewage conduits. If North America has a border tunnel capital, Nogales is it.

In 2007 and 2008, security crackdowns prior to the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing exposed three separate underground trade operations that deployed secret tunnels, cross-border tubing and pulley systems, and urban drainage ducts to ferry cheap electronic goods from Hong Kong to mainland China where they’re far more expensive. And about this time in November of last year, a 50-meter cocaine smuggling tunnel was found linking a Brazilian dealer’s house in the São Remo favela to an area outside the University of São Paulo through a wall separating the two. Student demand for cocaine prompted the tunnel apparently because many were too afraid of venturing into the favela.

This constant specter of walls cropping up along the world’s boundaries at first seems ignorant of its own porosity. Yet, the policy of walling hardly overlooks these routine practices of less visible trespass. In a so-called ‘borderless’ era of free trade walls strategically redirect unsanctioned cross-border flows further out of view and deeper underground by beckoning their own subversion this way, and for multiple reasons:

[1] Walls help to force a commingling of uncontrollable movements of various types with the illicit underground networks of criminal drug and human trafficking syndicates, and militant groups;

[2] by driving the world’s labor/refugee overflow underground it becomes easier to perceive such a superfluous population as less human and through a wider lens of “ferality” (a description Pentagon researchers have drawn upon to characterize the insurgents fighting the new urban wars of the 21st century—wars that would take place in the filthy spatial fallout of failed states/cities). This paves the creation of a more broad base subclass of borderzone criminality identified through a purposeful blurring of migrant/refugee/criminal/terrorist suspect categories. This pixelation only invites a greater juridical stripping of their legal status and harsh penalization under anti-terror national security frameworks; and,

[3] underground spaces can be deemed more viable military targets despite those that lack any violent intention by virtue of sharing a spatial typology that in nature coincides with other like-spaces that have been designed for more nefarious uses.

Today, not only do walls beget tunnels they co-construct them as an intended by-product that forces a multitude of forbidden cross-border sub-agencies into self dug graves and abyssal legality. Rather than taking responsibility through progressive immigration and labor policy, or re-examining the failures of the War On Drugs, or preventing Israel's annihilation of Palestinian statehood, national governments deploy a dehumanizing strategy of criminalization through forced tunnelization.

About the author

Bryan Finoki writes freelance, authors Subtopia, has taught at Woodbury School of Architecture, and co-founded DEMILIT. Tweets @subtopes

Related Articles
Border patrol international
Todd Miller