Workers install panels of steel bollard fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Picture: Washington Post/Nick Miroff

San Diego - 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 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, creating an adult-size gap. Because the bollards are so tall - and are attached only to a panel at the 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 the barriers, especially in the popular smuggling areas in the San Diego area, according to nearly a dozen U.S. agents and current and former administration officials.

Mexican criminal organizations, which generate billions of dollars in smuggling profits, have enormous incentive to adapt their operations at the border to new obstacles and enforcement methods, officials say.

The U.S. government has not disclosed the cutting incidents and breaches, and it is unclear how many times they have occurred. U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to provide information about the number of breaches, the location of the incidents and the process for repairing them. Matt Leas, a spokesman for the agency, declined to comment, and CBP has not yet fulfilled a Freedom of Information Act request seeking data about the breaches and repairs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the private contractors building the barrier, referred inquires to CBP.

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 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 that 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 repaired or replaced easily.

Ronald Vitiello, the former U.S. Border Patrol chief who was acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement until his removal in April, characterized the breaches as "poking and prodding" by cartel smuggling crews.

"The cartels will continue to innovate, and they're not just going to leave San Diego because the wall gets better," Vitiello said. "That's life on the border."

Vitiello, 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 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 smugglers deploy lightweight ladders made of 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.

The rebar ladders are popular because the metal support rods are inexpensive and are skinny enough to pass through the four-inch gaps between the bollards, making it possible for the smuggling teams to use them to scale the secondary row of fencing, according to agents. Rebar, easily purchased at hardware stores, typically is used within concrete as reinforcement.

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."

As he left the White House for Andrews Air Force Base en route to New York on Saturday, Trump was asked if he was concerned about smugglers cutting through the new wall.

"I haven't heard that," Trump said. "We have a very powerful wall. But no matter how powerful, you can cut through anything, in all fairness. But we have a lot of people watching. You know cutting, 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."

CBP officials also have consistently said that no single structure, regardless of its design, can seal the border on its own. Rather, they have advocated for a "border wall system" that combines physical barriers, surveillance technology and the rapid deployment of agents to stop border crossers and attempted breaches.

"There's no one silver bullet, and we've done our best to try to explain that," said Chris Harris, a retired Border Patrol agent in San Diego. "You're always going to have to have boots on the ground. That's why there are armed police officers at Fort Knox."

Smugglers with reciprocating saws were able to cut through previous versions of the barrier in far less time, agents note, and the new bollard design makes the smugglers' task significantly more difficult. Other Homeland Security officials note that the narrow gap created by a cut bollard permits only one person to pass through at a time, making it more difficult for large groups of migrants or smugglers to cross.

Because CBP is adding double-layer barriers in high-traffic areas such as San Diego, smugglers seek out locations where the distance between the primary and secondary fences is narrowest. A sawing crew will cut at a bollard while lookouts watch for U.S. agents, so the smuggling team can run back into Mexico if authorities arrive. Once the agents leave, the smugglers can resume their sawing in the same place.

"What happens any time some barrier is thrown up in front of a business is they adapt, and that's all they're trying to do," said Joshua Wilson, a Border Patrol agent and union official in San Diego.

The San Diego area is one of the most lucrative for narcotics smugglers or those bringing in migrants, who are willing to pay thousands of dollars apiece to reach the United States. Mexican deportees with homes and jobs on the U.S. side of the border are among some of the best-paying customers because they often have assets and are desperate to return.

The Trump administration commissioned some border barrier prototypes in 2017, and among the tests CBP conducted were the structures' resilience against breaching with reciprocating saws, according to federal contracting documents and testing reports. At the time, CBP agents said that no single design could be completely impenetrable, but the agency determined that steel bollards could not be cut easily without the use of "multiple power tools."

San Diego broadcaster KPBS, which reported on the prototype tests in 2018, obtained heavily redacted copies of the test results through FOIA requests. The reports showed that all of the designs the Trump administration evaluated in 2017 were found to be vulnerable to breaching methods.

NBC News subsequently published images of steel bollards that were cut during the prototype tests and showed the photographs to the president. "That's a wall designed by previous administrations," Trump said.

The version of the barrier being installed is based on the same bollard design, which the president calls "steel slats." It features six-inch-thick square bollards with a steel exterior that is three-sixteenths of an inch and a core filled with commercial-grade 5,000-pound concrete that is strengthened with rebar.

Kevin Trumble, a professor of materials engineering at Purdue University, and Srinivasan Chandrasekar, a professor of industrial engineering at Purdue, said a skilled operator with a reciprocating saw would be able to cut through the structure and that a severed bollard could be pushed out of the way using a standard car jack.

The engineers said other lithium battery tools could also be used to cut the steel and concrete. "You could use another device, like an abrasive saw, that would go even faster, but they create sparks because they operate at a high speed," Chandrasekar said.

The engineers estimated that it would take someone 20 minutes or less to cut through a bollard if a team worked in pairs with two saws. The crews might go through multiple blades to complete a cut, the engineers said, but the blades can be changed quickly to resume sawing.

Online video demonstrations of reciprocating saws show that commercially available diamond grit and tungsten carbide blades are capable of slicing through thick pieces of steel and concrete in significantly less time. One toothy, hardened blade that is particularly adept at cutting metal - the Diablo Steel Demon - can be seen zipping through a trailer hitch in less than 20 seconds.

Diablo brand promotional videos show carbide "extreme metal cutting" blades easily sawing through rebar, angle iron, steel pipes and steel plate that is three-eighths of an inch. The blades sell for between $10 and $15 at hardware stores and online. Diamond grit blades, which retail for slightly more, are used widely for cutting through steel, concrete and other materials.

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.

An additional 158 miles of barrier are under construction, according to CBP, and the agency said 276 miles are in a "preconstruction" phase.

The administration is on track to complete 450 miles of barriers by the end of next year, CBP acting commissioner Mark Morgan said last week. The latest construction data obtained by The Post show that the administration has finished just 2 percent of the barrier planned for stretches of border in Texas, where plans call for 166 miles of new fencing. Almost all of that barrier would be built on private land that the government has yet to acquire.

Trump campaigned on a promise to make Mexico pay for construction of the barrier, but nearly $10 billion that his administration has budgeted for the project has been taxpayer money from U.S. funding sources, primarily the Defense Department.

The Washington Post