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Border Tunnels

Juan Llamas-Rodriguez



Border Tunnels

Book cover

What follows is an adapted excerpt from Juan Llamas-Rodriguez’s Border Tunnels: A Media Theory of the US-Mexico Underground (2023), published by University of Minnesota Press.


Border Tunnels: A Media Theory of the U.S.-Mexico Underground offers a media studies approach to the topic of borders by turning to this understudied albeit illuminating feature of these spaces: underground illicit tunnels that allow movement across closed borders. The book argues that mediation enables the figural malleability of the tunnel, or the capacity of tunnels to assume various visual forms and conceptual meanings. This malleability, in turn, gives shape to a set of modern anxieties and struggles about living with borders. Different groups of people attach themselves to different anxieties and struggle to bring these to the fore. Border Patrol agents may be more concerned with labor stability, while conservationists worry about the flora and fauna of the border region. Migrants and poor border residents stress over the life-threatening conditions in the environment of the border, while defense contractors focus on profiting off the latest surveillance technology. The power imbalances between these groups of people are significant, and the stakes are often life-and-death. Analyzing the mediation of tunnels reveals how various stakeholders struggle to control the narrative over which border issues matter the most, and how to allocate time, resources, and political energy to addressing said issues.

The main contribution put forth by this book is what I refer to as a “media theory of the border tunnel,” premised on two basic propositions. The first proposition is that border tunnels are quintessential media figures. Because tunnels are hidden and inaccessible to most of the public, even those who live close to the border, tunnels come to matter in public discourse through their mediated representations. It is not that media offer one mode of access to this border feature; media offer the main mode of access to this border feature. Thus, tunnels offer us a particularly generative figure with which to critically analyze and disentangle the process of mediation and its relation to constructing the reality of the border. The second proposition is that every border tunnel mediation is also a border-making project. Representing tunnels in any type of media requires choosing how to position these structures in relation to the border. Likewise, given the rise of digital technologies capable of subsuming other types of media, representation itself necessitates making decisions about the limits and affordances of an individual medium. Understanding mediations of border tunnels provides insights into the ideological struggles that constitute “border issues,” such as migration, militarization, and ecological sustainability. In turn, analyzing trafficking tunnels as media figures questions established frameworks about border enforcement, alerts us to emergent anxieties at the border, and suggests alternative configurations of borderscapes.

Thinking of border issues through a media studies perspective matters because, in their most general sense, both borders and media are structuring frameworks of reference for how we come to understand ourselves and our place in the world. Political borders are never mere boundaries between two states, argues Etienne Balibar, because borders are always “overdetermined and, in that sense, sanctioned, reduplicated, and relativized by other geopolitical divisions.” [1] Overdetermination is intrinsic to the existence and permanence of borders. Emerging from and reinforced by a plethora of socio-cultural divisions and the institutions that support these, geopolitical borders manifest political struggles as a demarcation of physical space. The local function of borders, i.e. to separate two particular spaces, also implies their global significance: to give the world “a representable figure in the modality of the partition, distribution, and attribution of regions of space,” which in turn works as a “projection of the progresses and processes of its history.” [2] In that sense, borders always signify more than themselves; they are global projections onto localized organizations of space.

Gameplay clip from the tunnel level in Call of Juarez: The Cartel (Ubisoft, 2011)

The “world-configuring function” of borders finds its analog in media’s contribution to “a domain of worldly sensibility.” [3] Media transmit messages about our economic and ecological systems and, in doing so, become constitutive parts of those systems. The dual, reflexive process through which media represent and act upon our sense of the world is what we call mediation. Mediation refers to the complex intersection of economic, social, cultural, and technical domains. Contending with the mediatory function of media proves central to “understanding and articulating our being in, and becoming with, the technological world.” [4] Fictional and nonfictional worlds both surround us and support us: they exceed our view of them yet act as structural invariances that define what kinds of actions may take place in them. [5] If media make worlds and borders configure the world, then they both thrive in the productive impossibility of capturing what exists. [6] By offering the very stuff with which to make sense of worldly existence, media and borders play an indispensable role in the social organization of human life.

Through its analysis of underground border tunnels, this book navigates the conceptual and political resonances between the world-configuring functions of both media and borders. Focusing on tunnels enables us to refract the debates about border issues through an understudied albeit generative structure that inheres in the constitution of the border. Thinking through tunnels shifts the terms of those debates that play out most forcefully in border regions. Tunnels literally and figuratively open up new ways of thinking through the divisions and delineations we make between nation-states. The physical structure of tunnels reveals how easy it is to undermine the closed-off border. The figurative structure of tunnels enables the subversion of rhetorical strongholds in the mainstream border discourse. Considering tunnels as both physical and figurative entities offers new ways of thinking about “border issues” by turning our attention to the infrastructures organizing such issues, from the technologically aided militarization sought by state institutions to the on-the-ground resistance to such militarization to popular representations shaped by media industries’ norms and conventions. The theoretical wager of this book is that border tunnels offer a parallax perspective on how mediation shapes the issues concerning nation-state borders and, in doing so, can potentially destabilize entrenched debates surrounding these issues. The near inaccessibility of border tunnels to the general public (both near and far from the borderlands), without the intermediary facilitation of state agents or narco-traffickers, forces us to take seriously the generative functions of media. That is, media’s capacity to give new life to spaces and structures in excess of their real referent–the border. This parallax perspective emerges from both the intrinsic mediated nature of border tunnels and their structural capacity to reorganize spaces and ideas about the border. Bringing media studies to bear on border studies turns out to be not only about interrogating what media tells us about the border but also about what we can learn from questioning the borders of media themselves. Tunnels will guide us into this double journey.

Clip from “Inside a Mexican Border Drug Tunnel,” Anderson Cooper 360° (November 2010).



[1] Etienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene (New York: Verso, 2002): 79. Return to text.

[2] Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene, 93. Return to text.

[3] Mark B.N. Hansen, Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-first Century Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014): 6. Return to text.

[4] Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska, Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012): xv. Return to text.

[5] See Ryan Pierson’s excellent summary of several film and media theorists’ conceptions of worlds and perspectives. See Ryan Pierson, “Whole-Screen Metamorphosis and the Imagined Camera (Notes on Perspectival Movement in Animation),” Animation 10.1 (2015): 6–21. Return to text.

[6] John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017): 11. Return to text.


Juan Llamas-Rodriguez is Assistant Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and affiliate faculty with the Center for Latinx and Latin American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also Associate Director of the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication, where he leads the “Mobile Borders: Media, Migration, Diasporas” research theme. His first book, Border Tunnels: A Media Theory of the US-Mexico Underground (University of Minnesota Press, 2023), examines how media forms and technologies shape perceptions about the borderlands and help reimagine the stakes of border-making practices. His work also appears in the journals Social Text; Feminist Media Histories; Television and New Media; Journal of Cinema and Media Studies; Lateral; and Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience; as well as several edited collections.

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