14 Mexicans die after smugglers abandon them in the Arizona desert | TahoeDailyTribune.com

14 Mexicans die after smugglers abandon them in the Arizona desert

YUMA, Ariz. (AP) – Walk a couple of hours and you’ll reach a highway, the smugglers said. We’ll be back with water.

Members of the group, all of them from Mexico, apparently had no idea they would have to cross more than 50 miles of desert to reach the closest road. And they lacked the water and the know-how to survive the blast-furnace 115-degree heat.

On Thursday, five days after the men and teen-age boys set out to enter the United States illegally through southwestern Arizona, 14 of them were dead from exposure. It is believed to be the deadliest attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since 1987, when 18 Mexican men died in a locked railroad boxcar near Sierra Blanca, Texas.

The immigrants here were caught in an area Border Patrol agents call ”The Devil’s Path,” brutal country east of Yuma. It has become increasingly popular with border crossers because of stepped-up patrols elsewhere.

Twelve people survived, with one telling doctors he drank his own urine in desperation. One was found in a shallow hole, apparently dug to escape the heat. For some, food and water had run out by Monday.

Fighting the same heat that ravaged the immigrants, searchers followed tracks in hopes of finding other survivors. By midday Thursday, Border Patrol agents believed there could be one more person still in the desert.

Mexican officials said they have identified a suspect believed to be one of the smugglers. The smugglers could face charges of immigrant smuggling and murder, said Ruben Beltran, consul general in Phoenix.

The search started Wednesday morning when Border Patrol agents found four sunburned, dehydrated men, who told them of others in trouble.

Over the next 24 hours, search parties discovered six clusters of immigrants – some living, some dead – who had scattered. Discarded shoes and shirts and empty plastic water jugs lay around them.

Two men made it within 10 miles of Interstate 8, the highway they were trying to reach.

”Have you ever seen a mummy from ancient Egypt? That gives you an idea,” said Dr. David Haynes, who treated survivors at the Yuma Regional Medical Center. ”They looked shriveled up.”

The survivors were treated for severe dehydration and kidney damage. Doctors do not expect to release them for at least a week and said some will have lifelong kidney problems.

Southern Arizona has been a popular crossing point for illegal immigrants since the 1990s, after crackdowns in California and Texas pushed more people to try to enter the country through more remote and more dangerous areas.

The Border Patrol said 106 people died while crossing southern Arizona’s deserts during the 12-month period that ended on Sept. 30.

”People are very, very ill-prepared to understand the distances and the dangers and threats to their lives,” said the Rev. Robin Hoover, a Tucson pastor who sets up water stations for border crossers. ”For many of the people who cross, they have no idea what they are encountering.”

In August 1997, eight Mexican illegal immigrants drowned after being swept away by a 15-foot wall of water in a normally dry wash a few yards inside Arizona. In June 1996, five illegal immigrants from Mexico died of exposure in the desert 30 miles south of Casa Grande.

”Nobody should be surprised by these deaths,” said Claudia Smith, a lawyer for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, an advocacy group. ”They are an entirely foreseeable consequence of moving the migrant traffic out of the urban areas and into the most remote and dangerous areas.”

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, said the Arizona tragedy was brought about by economic disparities between Mexico and the United States combined with policies that call for tough enforcement at the border but impose few sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants.

”We are sending mixed messages,” Krikorian said. ”What we have now is a toxic combination that leads to deaths like this.”

He said two solutions exist: allowing an open border or enforcing the law against those who hire illegal immigrants.

Government officials in both countries issued a statement promising cooperation in the efforts to prosecute the smugglers in the Arizona case, fight immigrant trafficking along the entire border, and reach new agreements on migration and border safety.

In Washington, Attorney General John Ashcroft offered his condolences to relatives of the dead and condemned the smugglers.

”The U.S. and Mexican governments have begun investigations to identify the smugglers responsible for this tragedy and have pledged close cooperation to bring these criminals to justice,” he said.

On the Net:

Border Patrol: http://www.ins.usdoj.gov/graphics/lawenfor/bpatrol/

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