‘Subterranean’ is often used in English to denote two things: first, the processes and events that occur under the Earth’s surface, and second, making reference to the secret and concealed nature of political life.
Some of this can be highly imaginative; many cultures have mythologised about underground worlds filled with earthly forces, extraordinary peoples and secret worlds. As a metaphor, the underground invokes a politics of resistance and subversion and/or the shady world of cartels, terror groups, and secret societies.
Subterranean geopolitics works with the intersection of the geopolitical and geophysical. The underground activities of drug cartels in Mexico provide a good, if sinister, example of what is possible. For the last few years, the US and Mexican governments have uncovered ever more evidence of excavation and tunnelling in and around the borderlands. Some of them will be discovered and destroyed, but it is estimated that while a cross-border tunnel might take six to nine months to dig, it only has to be operational for a few hours in order to recover its construction costs. The tunnel itself might only be 500m in length and the entry/exit points hidden inside warehouses. Some tunnels can be longer and large enough to drive a car through them. The first such drug tunnel was discovered in 1990, and to this day US law enforcement agencies have no idea how many tunnels might be criss-crossing the US-Mexican border.
Tunnels have also proved to be essential accomplices in allowing senior members of Mexican drug cartels to evade capture, notably El Chapo, the former head of the Sinaloa cartel. With drug cartels generating billions of dollars in annual profit, their investment in border infrastructure is uncannily similar to law enforcement agencies in the United States. Both cartels and US border security agencies engage in engineering projects and depend upon geological knowledge and topographical intelligence above and below the ground. The Otay Mesa in the southern part of San Diego, close to the international border, is a low elevation bentonite clay plateau. Clay is easy to dig and excavate, and the Otay Mesa plays host to a number of drug tunnels. As the area in question, close to an immigration check-point, is also a busy warehouse district, it is common to see numerous trucks coming and going.
“We often learn a great deal about how the world works in practice – as we unearth, excavate, immerse, extract, pollute, engineer, detect, and even revere the subterranean world”
Surveillance is challenging because any seismic monitoring of subterranean borderlands is compromised by background noise, and above-ground surveillance often involves making split-second judgements about whether a truck is carrying water melons rather than marijuana. Drug cartels are now investing in newer horizontal directional drill (HDD) technologies, taking advantage of cutting edge developments more commonly associated with the oil and gas industry.
The drugs trade is only one area where the subterranean is an essential accomplice to geopolitical activities. Tunnelling is also a major concern for Israel and Hamas in the ‘border areas’ around Gaza, Israel and Egypt. Israeli security forces have invested heavily in seismic and surveillance technologies in an effort to disrupt and destroy smuggling and military tunnels. Hamas uses tunnels to hide its forces, store weapons including rockets, facilitate covert communication and evade aerial and surface-level detection. Both Israel and Hamas have been engaged in underground warfare and captured Hamas operatives have provided the Israeli defence and security services with further intelligence about the tunnel network criss-crossing into Israel.
In 2014, in an operation called Protective Edge, Israeli forces destroyed 32 tunnels. In September this year, it was announced that the Israeli government was going to invest £400million in further anti-tunnel security measures along the Gaza-Israel border. Arguably the subterranean contributes to an Israeli geopolitical imagination, which literally envisages terror occurring beneath their feet and homes.
A subterranean geopolitics does not just have to be restricted to drugs, terrorism, war and national security. Soil, rock, minerals and the sub-surface are integral to many struggles around the world by indigenous communities. In places such as Bolivia, Canada, Greenland and Papua New Guinea arguments continue to rage over land rights, resource ownership and the enduring legacies of colonial and Cold War patterns of appropriation, occupation, exploitation and pollution.
The dumping and storage of Cold War-era nuclear waste across the United States necessitated a subterranean world of storage units now administered by the Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management. Indigenous and aboriginal communities were often caught up in nuclear experimentation, and ancestral relationships to land were dismissed as inconsequential in the face of US and Soviet national security agendas. A subterranean geopolitics needs to be attentive to the toxic legacies of militarism.
By bringing these concerns to the surface, we often learn a great deal about how the world works in practice – as we unearth, excavate, immerse, extract, pollute, engineer, detect, and even revere the subterranean world.
This was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.