'Somebody is making money off those ladders': Smugglers use 'camouflage' ladders to cross border wall

Lauren Villagran
Published 2:53 p.m. MT Feb. 14, 2020 | Updated 4:33 p.m. MT Feb. 14, 2020

Perhaps the quickest way around a billion-dollar wall is over it.

Smugglers in Juárez have engineered camouflage hook-and-ladders made of rebar that blend in so well with the border wall that it can be hard to detect, according to U.S. Border Patrol. The ladders are the same rust brown color as the mesh panels or steel beams of the fence.

El Paso's urban stretch of border is littered with the rusted rebar ladders at the base on both sides — ladders lying in wait on the Mexican side, ladders pulled down by border agents or abandoned by smugglers on the U.S. side. One of the rebar ladders was poking out of a dumpster in a lot near the Chihuahuita neighborhood on Thursday.

"Somebody is making money off those ladders," said Agent Joe Romero, pointing to a mangled version tossed in the dirt on the U.S. side. "The agents pulled it off the wall and cut it up so it can't be used again."

Buy PhotoBorder patrol agents Joe Romero and Fidel Baca look at discarded ladders migrants use to climb over the border fence Thursday, Feb. 13, in El Paso. (Photo: BRIANA SANCHEZ/EL PASO TIMES)

The ladders appear to be made with two poles of 3/8-inch rebar and four thinner poles, outfitted with steps and bent over at the end in a U, to hook on the top of the wall. It's the sort of cubed rebar support structure used in construction in Mexico, called castillo.

More: Trump proposes $2B for 82 miles of border wall, with goal of completing 400 miles by end of 2020

Six meters of castillo costs 99 pesos, or about $5.30, at the Hágalo — or Do It Yourself — True Value hardware store in Juárez. There is no indication that smugglers are shopping at that store in particular.

Romero said the rebar ladders started turning up in large numbers in the El Paso sector last year in May, around the time that construction of the most recent replacement wall finished downtown.

They've been a go-to method for scaling the fence in the urban footprint since.

The Trump administration has funded construction of about 100 miles of border wall during his presidency, mostly to replace existing barriers. The president has proposed spending an additional $2 billion for border wall construction under a draft White House budget.

Border Patrol apprehensions of single adults — those most likely to use the ladder method — have nearly doubled year over year in the El Paso sector, which includes West Texas and New Mexico. From October through January, Border Patrol apprehended 10,030 adults, compared with 5,150 in the same period a year ago.

More: Gusty winds blew over a portion of President Trump's border wall with Mexico in California

Border patrol agents Joe Romero and Fidel Baca look at discarded ladders migrants use to climb over the border fence Thursday, Feb. 13, in El Paso. (Photo: BRIANA SANCHEZ/EL PASO TIMES)

Apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied minors have dropped sharply in the first four months of fiscal 2020 versus a year ago, in large part due to policy barriers created by the Trump administration to deter asylum seekers.

But old-fashioned illegal crossings are on the rise
in El Paso, according to Border Patrol.

"We’re starting to see a lot of evading activity," said Agent Ramiro Cordero, the sector's spokesman.

"We’re starting to see the criminal organizations working hand-to-hand on either side to avoid detection. More and more we are seeing 'failure to yields' — they are utilizing ladders to go over the fence and diversionary tactics."