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California and the West

3 Smuggling Suspects Arrested in Deaths of 8 Immigrants

Border: Mexican nationals allegedly led dozens of people into the U.S. via a rugged mountain pass east of San Diego. A sudden snowstorm proved fatal for some.


SAN DIEGO — U.S. authorities Saturday arrested and prepared federal smuggling charges against three men who accompanied dozens of suspected undocumented immigrants who had to be rescued from the isolated mountains of San Diego County after a snowstorm that left eight dead.

A spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol said the three Mexican nationals, whose names were not released, were identified by several survivors as having smuggled them into the United States along a back-country corridor. The border-crossers were overtaken Thursday night by an abrupt snowstorm and temperatures that dipped into the 20s, spurring a broad rescue effort by U.S. and San Diego County authorities. "We have four material witnesses," said spokesman Mario Villarreal.

Conviction on immigrant smuggling charges would carry a minimum three years in federal prison, plus possible additional time because some immigrants died while crossing, officials said. It would be up to state authorities to decide whether to pursue homicide charges, but that seemed unlikely.

"I don't know whether that's going to happen or not, but in prior times, we haven't seen that happen," said Border Patrol spokeswoman Gloria Chavez.

It was not known how many people the men allegedly sought to smuggle or if they were working together. Some of the survivors told rescuers that they had trekked for days and had been abandoned by their smugglers.

The action came as U.S. officials confirmed that an eighth man was found dead late Friday in Nelson Canyon, about 40 miles east of San Diego. The discovery capped a daylong search in which 36 people were rescued, soaked and shivering, from two neighboring areas just south of Interstate 8. Another 15 people were rescued closer to the border near the town of Campo.

Two other migrants were found dead Friday in rural reaches south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Predictions of chilly temperatures and the chance of fresh snow in the San Diego mountains fueled new warnings by officials in Mexico, where more than 60 would-be crossers have been rescued east of Tecate. The latest group, numbering about 20, was located Saturday after being abandoned by their smuggler close to the U.S. border, said a spokesman for the Baja California Civil Protection Agency.

Authorities there urged migrants not to attempt the back-country crossing.

"We can't stop them, but we can warn them of the risks," said Rebecca Romero, a spokeswoman for the Mexican Consulate in San Diego.

Consular officials said eight of the rescued Mexican nationals remained hospitalized. A pair of rescued girls, sisters ages 5 and 7 from the state of Guanajuato, were returned to Mexico with an uncle who also made the crossing. Officials said the girls' mother had tired of the journey and turned back to Mexico.

On the U.S. side, the last of the search teams emerged from the Nelson Canyon area early Saturday without locating other victims or survivors.

"It was basically a 25-hour search of that entire area and numerous hours from the air," Villarreal said.

The latest confirmed deaths bring to 28 the number of Mexican migrants who have died this year crossing the border into California.

The death toll, which last year totaled 141, has prompted charges by immigrant rights advocates that a border crackdown by the U.S. government near San Diego has diverted migrants east to life-threatening routes through the mountains and into the hostile desert of Imperial County. The single biggest menace is drowning: Nearly half of the 103 undocumented immigrants who died crossing into Imperial County last year drowned in swift-running irrigation canals.

The Border Patrol launched a safety program to warn would-be migrants of the natural perils and equipped agents with lifesaving gear. U.S. officials also set up a reward to encourage tipsters to turn in immigrant smugglers. But critics say those measures have failed to stop the fatalities.

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