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California and the West

Risk of Desert Deaths Rises as More Illegal Crossers Avoid Checkpoints

Immigrants: Border Patrol tries to publicize dangers in effort to avert tragedies. But many fear that the problem will worsen.

June 15, 1997|DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

INDIO — Under other circumstances, they might be tips from the local hiking club: Wear protective clothing, carry water, don't forget your hat.

But these advisories are from the U.S. Border Patrol, telling illegal immigrants how to stay alive.

Crackdowns at the border, from San Diego to Yuma, Ariz., are forcing thousands of immigrants into the deserts of California--where agents are sparse but danger abounds.

This arid land is a deadly welcome mat. Normal summer temperatures steam past 120 degrees. The ground, should a traveler collapse, is at least 10 degrees hotter. Stubby desert plants offer no shade. Rattlesnakes, scorpions and even two bombing ranges round out the list of perils.

The influx of illegal immigrants into this harsh terrain has pushed the Border Patrol in the El Centro sector, which covers 72 linear miles from the sand dunes in Imperial County to San Diego County's border, into a new role: rescuer.

"It's strange hearing 'Gracias, you're a savior,' " said Paul Villanueva, the patrol agent in charge of the Indio station. "But when we find them, they're in bad shape. It's going to be a long, hot summer."

Last month, Agent Joseph Olvera stopped a Ryder truck about noon, west of El Centro. Inside the 27-foot truck were 103 people.

"The walls were dripping beads of sweat. There were no ventilation holes. Another hour and they wouldn't have been alive," he said.

That same week, agents found a group of 17 people wandering in the desert, dumped by a smuggler who had apparently overbooked his truck. The agents also ran into another group of 24 traveling on foot, lost. One man from that group was suffering heat exhaustion and was taken to a hospital by ambulance.

The press release from the El Centro office announcing these arrests took the unusual step of including the list of how-to's for desert survival.

Already, illegal immigrants are flagging down Border Patrol agents on the highways--more interested in water than in making it to Los Angeles.

So far this year, no heat-related deaths have been reported.

"But you have to wonder," Villanueva said. "How many people don't make it and we don't ever hear about it?"

On a hill 12 miles west of the border town Calexico, Monument 225, a chipped concrete column commemorating the 1853 Mexican-American treaty, marks the border. From here the view of the American side is of green asparagus fields crisscrossed by canals.

The vision is illusory.

*

"They see the farmlands and they don't get scared. They figure they're pretty close to the next canal, the next town," said Border Patrol Agent Juan Amaya. "A lot of them are from tropical climates--how can they know that 10 miles from here there's burning desert and then more burning desert?"

Two years ago the Border Patrol posted signs in Calexico with red letters proclaiming Desierto Peligroso--Dangerous Desert. But tourists sawed them off and carted them home as souvenirs.

Since 1993 the United States Information Agency has distributed videos, radio commercials and fliers throughout Mexico and Latin America warning of the desert's deadliness.

Efforts were intensified last year after a dozen immigrants died in the deserts surrounding Tucson during a particularly brutal summer.

But the people are still coming.

The El Centro sector's 155 field agents arrest an average of 10,510 illegal immigrants a month--a 122% increase over last year. During the same period, staffing has dropped 40%.

*

In order to count "got-aways," agents drag tires along the border, creating a smooth path where footprints will show. In the first week of June there were footprints or sightings of 673 people who crossed without getting caught.

The people arrested run the gamut from starving Oaxacan Indians from southern Mexico to Nike-clad Mexican teenagers with Blockbuster video rental cards in their wallets.

"Most say they're hungry, they need work. Two boys I pulled off a train said they came para aventura--for the adventure," said John Bryant, the watch commander for the El Centro station's night shift. "You can't get too upset with them because you know if you were in the same situation you'd be doing the same thing."

Lately, watching the numbers for his sector rise and hearing the locals predict an unusually hot summer, Bryant has been troubled by memories of other hot summers. A decade ago, the bodies of three young sisters from a small Mexican village were found huddled together. The same dry summer, an illegal immigrant hung himself from a tree, apparently fearing that a death from thirst would be worse.

The immigrants travel after dark. One recent night, Bryant and his agents hit the field armed with an infrared camera that "sees" body heat.

*

Modesto Alejandra Urbina, 24, and Arauel Sedeno Escamillo, 21, appear on the screen as two ghostly white figures, holding hands and crouching low. Two agents close in on them and make the arrest.

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