Efforts by the Trump administration to secure portions of the 1,933-mile long US-Mexico border with reinforced physical barriers have done little to deter the lucrative business of human smuggling, law enforcement sources told CNN.
Despite President Donald Trump’s push to strengthen current border barriers and to build a wall along the southern border, law enforcement officials involved in day-to-day security near the border insist cartels that profit from human smuggling continue to seek creative ways to bypass America’s defenses.
“It is an ongoing cat and mouse game,” said one senior law enforcement official, referring to efforts to stop human smuggling. “Regardless of what physical countermeasure is put in place, those intent on coming into the country will work to find ways over it, around it, or through it.”
Since the administration began erecting portions of bollard fencing along the southern border, Mexican gangs have sought to identify potential weaknesses in new and existing infrastructure, engaging in a seemingly endless effort to either cut through or scale barriers that stand in the way of smuggling paying customers seeking entry into the United States.
“Whether it’s newly-constructed barriers, or less advanced legacy systems, cartels are working to defeat them,” said the official.
Smuggling gangs in Mexico have been able to breach new sections of Trump’s border wall in recent months, according to a new report from the Washington Post.
Citing US agents and officials with knowledge of the damage, the Post reported that smugglers have been using reciprocating saws to cut through the steel and concrete portions of the wall, creating openings wide enough for people and drugs to move through.
Trump said on Saturday that he hadn’t heard reports about cutting through the border wall, but, he added, “you can cut through anything.”
‘You can cut through anything’
“We have a very powerful wall, but no matter how powerful, you can cut through anything, in all fairness,” the President told reporters at the White House.
“But we have a lot of people watching,” he continued. “Cutting is one thing, but it’s easily fixed. One of the reasons we did it the way we did it, it’s very easily fixed. You put the chunk back in. But we have a very powerful wall. But you can cut through any wall.”
Matthew Leas, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, told CNN: “Any characteristic that the wall is not working is ridiculous. The wall is working.”
Although the senior law enforcement official contacted by CNN said that repair teams are indeed constantly trying to patch compromised areas along the entire border, attempts to defeat newly refurbished sections of the border wall are the least of concern for border protection officials, who must still protect the majority of portions that are not reinforced with new technology. The updated portions are purported to be more structurally sound in theory leaving less vulnerable.
“Cartels are working to find the path of least resistance,” said the official. “They have the time, space and resources to try to find ways around efforts to thwart unlawful entry.”
The official noted that efforts by smugglers have included using acid to weaken and then chip away at concrete, deploying makeshift ladders to hook on the top of fencing, and cutting through metal.
And when they succeed at finding weak points, smuggling rings are now sophisticated enough to cover their tracks and preserve entry methods for later use, the official said. For example, after using cutting tools to work their way through fencing, smugglers have gone so far as to weld hinges that swing outward towards the south, allowing cartels quick use of these access points in the future.
The official noted that the fees paid to smugglers to shepherd entry into the United States have skyrocketed in the past two decades. Whereas Mexican gangs had once charged approximately $1,000 to smuggle a Mexican citizen into the United States in the pre-9/11 era, the current rate is approximately four times that amount. The large profit margins mean that cartels can afford to test the system, said the official, even if doing so also means losing some of their gang members to arrest should they be apprehended by US officials.
While law enforcement officials contacted by CNN agree that protective measures are important in helping slow down smugglers, a separate US law enforcement official said that such intense attention on physical barriers amounts to a band-aid approach to a much larger issue.
“So much focus has been on physical defenses,” said the second official, “but America’s illegal immigration issue is far more complex than simply building a wall. We need to treat illegal immigration the same way we worked terrorism issues after 9/11 – and that is addressing it at the root cause in foreign nations, rather than placing all our hopes in some imperfect domestic last line of defense.”
Josh Campbell is a CNN law enforcement analyst and former FBI supervisory special agent.
CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi and Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.