COLUMBUS, N.M. – Illegal immigrants armed with torches, hacksaws, ladders and even bungee cords are making it around a section of the border fence hailed as the most efficient way to stop them.
In the 10 months since the section was put up, the only method federal agents haven't seen is a tunnel — "Yet," said Victor Guzman, the supervisory Border Patrol agent responsible for the stretch of close-together 15-foot cement-filled steel poles planted three feet into the ground.
Agents responsible for guarding the stretch of border here "almost immediately" started seeing cuts in the fence. The towering gray and rust colored posts are marked with bright orange spray paint in areas believed to have been breached, Guzman said.
Guzman, who has worked in the area for nearly a decade, said agents have found holes cut with acetylene torches, hacksaws and even plasma torches — a high-powered tool that uses inert gas or condensed air to quickly cut through steel and other dense metals.
"We see it once or twice a week," Guzman said of the holes along the 1.5-mile stretch of fencing about 80 miles west of El Paso.
Officials monitoring cameras in the area have seen at least one group using a massive ladder to scale the south side of the fence. The group tried to drop into the U.S. with bungee cords before agents caught them.
But it's not just illegal immigrants worrying the Border Patrol. The fence itself is starting to settle into the ground and gaps between the posts are widening. In one spot, an average sized woman could wedge herself through one of the gaps.
Border Patrol spokesman Joe Romero said the Columbus fencing, built in June, was ordered before the congressional mandate to build 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicle fencing across the border with Mexico by the end of the year. But its goal is the same: add a layer of security in an otherwise open patch of desert.
Other sections of fencing along the border are being built with panels of woven steel instead of the towering posts.
Detractors have long argued that the fence will do little to stop determined illegal immigrants and smugglers hoping to enter the United States.
Barry Morrissey, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman in Washington, did not immediately return a telephone message from The Associated Press on Friday.
Romero said the breaches are no surprise.
"What we're talking about is our fences are designed to deter people, discourage them from coming in," Romero said. "Combined with the rest of the infrastructure, it's supposed to buy us more time to make an arrest. Even an extra five seconds helps. The goal is, at the very least, it buys us extra time."
Repairing fences is old hat for agents in the Border Patrol's El Paso Sector, which includes the two most western Texas counties and all of New Mexico.
In the city of El Paso, a team of agents is assigned to patrol a stretch of more than a dozen miles of existing fencing, looking for and welding holes. The agents assigned to the task often repair the same sections of fencing daily.
Agents in Arizona and California, where fencing has also been in place for more than a decade, have in the past done the same thing. In some of those areas contractors now help with the daily fixes.