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Mexican Cartels Are Using Firetruck-Sized Drillers to Make Drug Pipelines

The future of narco smuggle tech is boring.
Cartels are using horitonzal directional drills like this Ditch Witch JT8020 to carve out literal drug pipelines into the US, via MTI Equipment.

In the beginning, they used catapults, dune buggies, "jalapeños," $1 million submarines, and sophisticated drug tunnels to move drugs northward. Now, Mexican drug cartels are taking to high-end industrial drills to carve out literal drug pipelines into the US.

It's the next big leap in the evolution of the narcos' ingenious smuggle tech. The future of borderland drug running, it turns out, is boring. Jason Kersten reports on the phenomenon in a great GQ feature that focuses on the Sinaloa Cartel, the international crime syndicate believed to be behind the first known narco pipeline in 2008:


…Mexican authorities, responding to reports of a cave-in and flooding near the [All-American] canal, discovered a tunnel unlike anything they'd ever seen. Only ten inches wide, it was essentially a pipe. The Mexican cops traced it back to a house about 600 feet from the border, where they found a tractor-like vehicle with a long barrel on its side—a horizontal directional drill, or HDD.

It was only a matter of time. This is a proven technology, after all, the same deployed by big oil, gas, and utilities projects —"the most profitable industry on earth," Kersten writes—to rapidly bore conduit holes at considerable depths and across great distances, say under the Rio Grande. Here's how it works:

For any drug trafficker with the wherewithal and resources, "HDD is a dream come true," according to Kersten. As the San Diego Tunnel Task Force's Jose Garcia told Kersten, "not a lot of sophistication is required" on the narcos' end, just a baseline knowledge of how to maneuver something like the Ditch Witch JT8020, the firetruck-sized HDD rig that authorities found at a drug smuggling operation in the Calexico region in 2011.

Other than that, "It's easy. It's fast," Garcia added.

So easy and fast, in fact, that a lone HDD operator can be boring thousand-foot tunnels, and burrowing at basically any angle to boot, in just weeks with little training. Some of the larger and advanced industrial HDD units are capable of clearing holes five feet across, and also automaticaly self-feed pipe while providing real-time progress monitoring.


There have been at least seven HDD pipelines busted up by authorities since 2008 in Calexico alone. All of them "collided with city infrastructure," Kersten notes, but lesson learned: Soon enough, the Sinaloa and other cartels will very well have perfected the technique.

“They keep improving their knowledge and rising in sophistication,” Garcia admitted. “They've got the bucks.”

No more getting "high-centered", in other words.