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California and the West

3 Suspected Illegal Immigrants Die, 28 Rescued in Freezing Mountains

Border: Victims of storm were on foot in eastern San Diego County. The rural corridor is often used for smuggling people from Mexico, officials say.

March 07, 2000|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PINE VALLEY, Calif. — Three suspected illegal immigrants were found dead and 28 others were rescued Monday in the frigid mountains of eastern San Diego County after a weekend storm that dropped 8 inches of snow and sent temperatures into the low 20s.

The dead--two men and a woman--belonged to groups trudging separately from Mexico through the rugged, snowcapped expanse about 50 miles east of San Diego, authorities said. The two spots where the bodies were found are in a rural corridor favored by immigrant smugglers that is not far from where eight migrants perished in a freak snowstorm last spring.

Of those rescued Monday, nine were taken to area hospitals, suffering symptoms of exposure to the cold. Two women were in critical condition.

The migrants, some dressed in lightweight clothes and sneakers, were traveling in three groups when they were caught in Sunday's powerful storm. The dead and nearly all of the survivors were found near Mt. Laguna, a 5,975-foot peak along the edge of Cleveland National Forest.

Migrants who were part of a group of 11 told Border Patrol agents that they had trekked for two days and nights and were abandoned by the two smugglers who led them across the border.

"These people, not being familiar with the area, being disoriented and suffering the first symptoms of hypothermia, were lost," said U.S. Border Patrol spokeswoman Gloria Chavez.

Mexican consular officials said they had interviewed seven of the hospitalized survivors, all of whom were from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The Mt. Laguna search began after a San Diego County road worker spotted two migrants walking along Sunrise Highway, which winds north from Interstate 8 to the popular mountain recreation area. The pair, covered in snow and showing possible signs of hypothermia, reported that other members of their group were stranded in the wilderness.

Searchers found seven more survivors, plus a man and woman who had died, in a remote area about 21 miles north of Interstate 8.

Border Patrol Agent David Shipley said another group of 13 migrants who were "in distress" were held after being spotted near the Laguna Mountain Lodge. Searchers found the third victim among that group.

"I took them cookies and hot chocolate because they just looked desperate," said lodge owner Sheila Sada.

A separate group of six people was led to safety from a rugged forest area south of the interstate.

The Border Patrol rescue team was joined by searchers from the California Highway Patrol, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, volunteer firefighters and U.S. Forest Service personnel. Searchers called off the effort by late afternoon, saying that no other migrants were believed missing.

The deaths raised to 16 the number of immigrants who have died this year crossing the border into California. Activists say Operation Gatekeeper, the U.S. government's 5-year-old border crackdown, has pushed would-be crossers into dangerous terrain in the mountains and deserts.

Sunday's storm also prompted rescues south of the border. In the same mountainous region, Mexican authorities reported rescuing 105 would-be crossers who were abandoned in several locations by smugglers.

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