Border Security:

Additional Actions Could Strengthen DHS Efforts to Address Subterranean, Aerial, and Maritime Smuggling

GAO-17-474: Published: May 1, 2017. Publicly Released: May 1, 2017.

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  • PODCAST: Subterranean, Aerial, and Maritime Border Smuggling

    Description: Transnational criminal organizations are smuggling drugs and humans across the U.S. border using things like cross-border tunnels, ultralight aircraft, and fishing boats. So, what is the Department of Homeland Security doing about it?

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gamblerr@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

GAO's analysis of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data showed that there were 67 discovered cross-border tunnels, 534 detected ultralight aircraft incursions, and 309 detected drug smuggling incidents involving panga boats (a fishing vessel) and recreational vessels along U.S. mainland borders from fiscal years 2011 through 2016. The number of known smuggling events involving these methods generally declined over this period, but they remain threats.

Examples of a Cross-Border Tunnel, Ultralight Aircraft, and Panga Boat

Examples of a Cross-Border Tunnel, Ultralight Aircraft, and Panga Boat

DHS has established various coordination mechanisms and invested in technology to address select smuggling methods in the subterranean, aerial, and maritime domains. For example, DHS established interagency task forces to investigate cross-border tunnels. However, DHS has not established comprehensive standard operating procedures for addressing cross-border tunnels, and we found that relevant officials were not aware of all DHS systems or offices with tunnel information. By establishing procedures for addressing cross-border tunnels, DHS could provide strategic guidance and facilitate information sharing departmentwide, consistent with standards for internal control. DHS has also invested or plans to invest in at least five technology projects to help detect and track ultralight aircraft. However, DHS has not assessed and documented how all of the alternative ultralight aircraft technical solutions it is considering will fully address operational requirements or the costs and benefits associated with these different solutions. This type of analysis could help better position DHS to use its resources effectively and ensure that operational needs are met, consistent with risk management best practices.

DHS has established high-level smuggling performance measures and collects data on smuggling by tunnels, ultralight aircraft, panga boats, and recreational vessels; however, DHS has not assessed its efforts specific to addressing these smuggling methods to, for example, compare the percent of detected panga boat and recreational smuggling events that are interdicted against targeted performance levels. By establishing measures and regularly monitoring performance against targets, managers could obtain valuable information on successful approaches and areas that could be improved to help ensure that technology investments and operational responses to address these smuggling methods are effective, consistent with standards for internal control. This is a public version of a For Official Use Only—Law Enforcement Sensitive report that GAO issued in February 2017. Information DHS deemed For Official Use Only—Law Enforcement Sensitive has been redacted.

As DHS has increased the security of overland smuggling routes, transnational criminal organizations have adapted their techniques to smuggle drugs and humans through alternative methods. These methods include cross-border tunnels, ultralight aircraft, panga boats, and recreational maritime vessels. While these methods account for a small proportion of known smuggling, they can be used to transport significant quantities of drugs or for terrorist activity. GAO was asked to review DHS's efforts to address subterranean, aerial, and maritime smuggling. This report addresses, among other things, (1) the known prevalence of the aforementioned smuggling methods, (2) efforts to address them, and (3) efforts to assess the results of activities to counter them. GAO analyzed relevant procedures, reports, and data for fiscal years 2011 through 2016. GAO also interviewed DHS officials and conducted site visits to locations in California, Arizona, and Florida, chosen based upon past detection of smuggling by the selected methods, among other things. The information from the site visits is not generalizable, but provided valuable insights.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations, including that DHS establish procedures for addressing tunnels, assess ultralight aircraft technology, and establish performance measures and targets. DHS concurred with four recommendations and disagreed with those to establish tunnel procedures and maritime performance measures, citing other efforts. GAO believes the recommendations remain valid, as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2017, we reported on the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) efforts to assess the risks from maritime smuggling. We found that within DHS, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine Operations, CBP U.S. Border Patrol, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations all captured information on the types of maritime vessels used for smuggling drugs and migrants to inform their counter smuggling efforts. However, we also reported that the use of different terminology for vessels in different regions and different data systems impeded DHS's ability to develop a full picture of the risks from maritime smuggling nationwide. Consequently, we recommended that DHS develop standardized, departmentwide definitions for maritime vessels used for smuggling in the DHS Lexicon, a unified controlled vocabulary that DHS and its components can use when communicating and sharing data. In May 2017, DHS issued an updated version of its DHS Lexicon that included new standardized terms and definitions for a number of maritime vessels, including "recreational boat" and "open-hull fishing boat." The newly defined "open-hull fishing boat" term encompasses pangas, yolas, lanchas, and go-fasts and addresses the issue of overlapping definitions and differences in regional parlance we identified. The availability of the standardized maritime vessel definitions for use in future threat assessments will help DHS better leverage the assessments to develop a clearer and more comprehensive picture of the threats posed by these maritime smuggling methods across the nation. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that efforts to address smuggling through cross-border tunnels, ultralight aircraft, panga boats, and recreational vessels are effective and that managers and stakeholders have the information needed to make decisions, the Secretary of Homeland Security should develop standardized, departmentwide definitions for maritime vessels used for smuggling in the DHS Lexicon.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DHS concurred with this recommendation and stated that it plans to assess and document requirements related to ultralight aircraft threats and how technological solutions will address these requirements as part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) air domain awareness efforts. In March 2018, CBP completed an Air Domain Awareness Capability Analysis Report that identifies current capability gaps, including those related to ultralight aircraft. CBP stated that it plans to build upon the Capability Analysis Report to identify mission needs, a concept of operations, and operational requirements to address ultralight aircraft and other threats in the air domain. In February 2020, AMO reported that, in 2019, it conducted a technical assessment of one technology and plans to assess other systems in 2020 and 2021 to help determine if they fit into AMO's larger strategic vision for persistent wide area surveillance to address ultralight aircraft and other threats in the air domain. To fully address our recommendation, CBP should assess and document how alternative solutions will meet operational requirements related to ultralight aircraft.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that efforts to address smuggling through cross-border tunnels, ultralight aircraft, panga boats, and recreational vessels are effective and that managers and stakeholders have the information needed to make decisions, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of CBP to assess and document how the alternative technological solutions being considered will fully meet operational needs related to ultralight aircraft.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: DHS concurred with this recommendation and stated that U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will review available information and develop performance measures and targets as deemed appropriate. As of March 2020, CBP and ICE have not reported taking any actions to develop performance measures and targets. To fully address our recommendation, CBP and ICE should establish and monitor performance measures and targets related to cross-border tunnels.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that efforts to address smuggling through cross-border tunnels, ultralight aircraft, panga boats, and recreational vessels are effective and that managers and stakeholders have the information needed to make decisions, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of CBP and the Director of ICE to jointly establish and monitor performance measures and targets related to cross-border tunnels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: DHS concurred and stated that within U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations and the U.S. Border Patrol are developing a joint performance measure and targets for interdicting ultralight aircraft. However, in December 2019, CBP reported that it will no longer pursue establishing a performance measure because it found that the ultralight aircraft interdiction rate fluctuated year to year, and that the number of ultralight aircraft incidents had been trending downward. We continue to believe that a performance measure and target could be set, and that it would help CBP monitor performance to ensure that technology investments and operational responses to address ultralight aircraft are effective. To fully address our recommendation, CBP should establish a measure and monitor performance related to ultralight aircraft.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that efforts to address smuggling through cross-border tunnels, ultralight aircraft, panga boats, and recreational vessels are effective and that managers and stakeholders have the information needed to make decisions, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of CBP to establish and monitor performance targets related to ultralight aircraft.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: DHS did not concur with this recommendation. However, CBP and ICE agreed that strengthening operational procedures may be beneficial and stated that they will jointly review procedures and discuss revising and/or consolidating the procedures. In May 2018, CBP stated that it is looking for opportunities to standardize procedures for the detection, interdiction, mapping, and remediation of cross-border tunnels. To this end, CBP has plans to develop a standardized training on tunnel identification and tactics, techniques, and procedures for different types of tunnels. In addition, CBP is working to develop a consistent process that will facilitate coordination and collaboration with ICE. In March 2019, CBP reported that CBP and ICE have begun to routinely meet to collectively develop processes for using tunnel robotics, including processes to enhance communication between CBP and ICE. In February 2020, CBP and ICE reported that they do not plan to take any additional steps to address this recommendation. To fully address our recommendation, CBP and ICE should establish standardized procedures for addressing tunnels, including procedures for sharing information with one another.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that efforts to address smuggling through cross-border tunnels, ultralight aircraft, panga boats, and recreational vessels are effective and that managers and stakeholders have the information needed to make decisions, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)-U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tunnel committee to convene and establish standard operating procedures for addressing cross-border tunnels, including procedures for sharing information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: DHS did not concur with this recommendation. DHS stated that that it believes that by establishing common terminology to address our first recommendation, the RECOMs will have more reliable, usable analyses to inform their maritime interdiction efforts. However, DHS did not believe that performance measures and targets related to smuggling by panga boats would provide the most useful strategic assessment of operations to prevent all illicit trafficking, regardless of area of operations or mode of transportation. DHS also cited the recent creation of the DHS Office of Policy, Strategy, and Plans that is to work with U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other components and offices to better evaluate the effectiveness of all operations that work to prevent the illegal entry of goods and people into the country, as appropriate. In February 2020, DHS reported that the department had not taken any further actions to implement this recommendation. We continue to believe that the recommendation is valid and will monitor any actions DHS takes that are responsive to it. For example, in response to a requirement in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, DHS issued reports in May 2018 and February 2019 that contain metrics and planned metrics to measure the effectiveness of border security in the maritime environment and other domains. Planned metrics that DHS does not yet have a methodology to measure across all components include situational awareness in the maritime environment, illicit drugs removal rate, and DHS maritime threat response rate. To fully address our recommendation, DHS should measure its performance related to smuggling across U.S. maritime borders.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that efforts to address smuggling through cross-border tunnels, ultralight aircraft, panga boats, and recreational vessels are effective and that managers and stakeholders have the information needed to make decisions, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Commissioner of CBP, and the Director of ICE to establish and monitor Regional Coordinating Mechanisms performance measures and targets related to panga boat and recreational vessel smuggling.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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