Smuggling gangs in Mexico have repeatedly sawed through new sections of President Donald Trump’s border wall in recent months by using commercially available power tools, opening gaps large enough for people and drug loads to pass through, according to U.S. agents and officials with knowledge of the damage.
The breaches have been made using a popular cordless household tool known as a reciprocating saw that retails at hardware stores for as little as $100. When fitted with specialized blades, the saws can slice through one of the barrier’s steel-and-concrete bollards in a matter of minutes, according to the agents, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the barrier-defeating techniques.
After cutting through the base of a single bollard, smugglers can push the steel out of the way, allowing an adult to fit through the gap. Because the bollards are so tall – and are attached only to a panel at the very top – their length makes them easier to push aside once they have been cut and are left dangling, according to engineers consulted by The Washington Post.
The taxpayer-funded barrier – so far coming with a $10 billion price tag – was a central theme of Trump’s 2016 campaign, and he has made the project a physical symbol of his presidency, touting its construction progress in speeches, ads and tweets. Trump has increasingly boasted to crowds in recent weeks about the superlative properties of the barrier, calling it “virtually impenetrable” and likening the structure to a “Rolls-Royce” that border-crossers cannot get over, under or through.
The smuggling crews have been using other techniques, such as building makeshift ladders to scale and overtop the barriers, especially in the popular smuggling areas in and around San Diego, according to nearly a dozen U.S. agents and current and former administration officials.
One senior administration official, who was not authorized to discuss the breaches but spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they amounted to “a few instances” and that the new barrier fencing had “significantly increased security and deterrence” along sections of the border in CBP’s San Diego and El Centro sectors in California.
Current and former CBP officials confirmed that there have been cutting breaches, but they said the new bollard system remains far superior and more formidable than any previous barrier design.
Some of the damage has happened in areas where construction crews have yet to complete the installation of electronic sensors that, once operational, will more quickly detect the vibrations sawing produces on the bollards, the officials said. They also said one of the main advantages of the steel bollard system – which stands between 18 and 30 feet tall – is that damaged panels can be easily repaired or replaced.
Ronald Vitiello, the former U.S. Border Patrol chief, who helped oversee the development of barrier prototypes in 2017, said the administration could have added better deterrent features if Democrats in Congress had provided more funding.
“The bollards are not the most evolved design; they are the most evolved that we could pay for,” Vitiello said. “We never said they would be an end-all, be-all.”
In the San Diego area, smugglers have figured out how to cut the bollards and return them to their original positions, disguising the breaches in the hope that they will go unnoticed and can be reused for repeated passage. Agents said they have learned to drive along the base of the structure looking for subtle defects, testing the metal by kicking the bollards with their boots.
If damage is detected, welding crews are promptly sent to make fixes. The smugglers, however, have returned to the same bollards and cut through the welds, agents say, because the metal is softer and the concrete at the core of the bollard already has been compromised. The smugglers also have tried to trick agents by applying a type of putty with a color and texture that resembles a weld, making a severed bollard appear intact.
Agents in California and Texas said smuggling teams have also been using improvised ladders to go up and over the barriers, despite the risk of injury or death from falling; the tallest barriers are approximately the height of a three-story building. Some of the teams deploy lightweight ladders made from metal rebar, using them to get past the “anti-climb panels” that span the top of the barrier.
Once the lead climber reaches the top, agents say, they use hooks to hang rope ladders down the other side.
Trump initially wanted to build a concrete wall along the length of the border but was talked out of it by Homeland Security officials who said the bollard system is a superior design because it allows agents to see through to the other side.
“Frankly, an all-concrete wall would have been a much less-expensive wall to build,” Trump said in September during a visit to new sections of the barrier in San Diego. “But from the standpoint of Border Patrol, they were very much opposed to it.”
The Trump administration has so far completed 76 miles of new barriers, all of it in areas like San Diego where the structure has replaced older, shorter and, in some cases, dilapidated fencing.
Another 158 miles of barrier is under construction, according to CBP, and the agency said 276 miles are in a “preconstruction” phase.