May 17, 2009
by Brady McCombs
Illegal border crossers face a deadlier trek than ever across Arizona's desert.
The risk of dying is 1.5 times higher today compared with five years ago and 17 times greater than in 1998, the Arizona Daily Star's border-death database shows.
That's a significant increase considering the initial spike of deaths in Arizona occurred in 2000-02.
Through the first seven months of fiscal year 2009, there were 60 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in the area covered in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. That's up from 39 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in 2004.
The increased risk of death parallels the historic buildup of agents, fences, roads and technology along the U.S.-Mexico border, calling into question one of the Border Patrol's mantras that a "secure border is a safe border."
Even with 3,300 agents, 210 miles of fences and vehicle barriers, and 40 agents assigned to the agency's search, rescue and trauma team, Borstar, illegal immigrants are still dying while trying to cross the Border Patrol's 262-mile-long Tucson Sector.
Border county law enforcement, Mexican Consulate officials, Tohono O'odham tribal officials and humanitarian groups say the buildup has caused illegal border crossers to walk longer distances in more treacherous terrain, increasing the likelihood that people will get hurt or fatigued and left behind to die.
"We are pushing people into more deadly areas," said Kat Rodriguez, coordinating organizer for Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a Tucson-based group that tracks the deaths. "When enforcement goes up, death goes up. We've been saying that for years."
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada and Sgt. David Noland, the Cochise County Sheriff's Office search and rescue coordinator, say body recoveries in their counties show that people are trekking through increasingly remote areas.
The Border Patrol doesn't stop anyone from coming; it only shifts the locations where they cross, said Rev. Robin Hoover, president of Tucson-based Humane Borders. His group's maps show that bodies are being found farther away from principal roads and water sources each year.
"The presence of the Border Patrol makes the average migrant hungrier, thirstier, more tired and sicker," Hoover said.
Border Patrol officials point to their rescue efforts as evidence that their presence prevents deaths rather than causes them.
"Our presence is greater; we are getting to these people sooner," said Robert Boatright, deputy chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. The agency rescued 160 people through mid-May, compared with 151 at the same time last year.
He attributes the continued rise in deaths to better recovery methods and more thorough record-keeping.
"When somebody loses a loved one, a lot of times we're getting better information back and going back and finding those," Boatright said.
The agency concentrates its agents and rescue teams in the desert west of Sasabe, where most of the bodies are found, to move them out of the most dangerous areas, he said.
"I'm not driving them to a more hazardous location," he said. "I'm driving them toward Nogales."
Nobody knows exactly how many people try to cross the border illegally through Arizona.
There is no magic laser counter strung across the U.S.-Mexico border, and no agency estimates how many people get past the Border Patrol.
That leaves the Border Patrol's apprehensions as the best, albeit flawed, indicator of the flow of illegal immigrants.
It's flawed because apprehensions represent an event, not a person, and don't distinguish whether someone has been caught once or multiple times.
The apprehension figures show a clear downward trend in the Tucson Sector, the busiest on the Southwest Border, with the captures dropping 35 percent from 491,771 in 2004 to 317,696 in 2008. This year's numbers through April are down 31 percent from the same time in 2008.
The Border Patrol points to the gradual decrease as evidence that fewer are crossing. That theory is backed by several other indicators of a slowdown, including Mexican census data that show fewer people are leaving the country.
Yet the number of bodies found hasn't followed that downward slope.
The body count has remained in the same range between 2004 and 2009, yo-yoing between 180 and 230 per fiscal year, the Star border-death database shows.
The bodies of 86 illegal border crossers have been discovered from the beginning of fiscal year 2009 — Oct. 1 — through April, compared with 75 at the same time last year. The hottest and most deadly months for migrant deaths are still to come.
The Arizona Daily Star's border-death database only goes back to October 2004, but using the Border Patrol's death totals, which have long undercounted the number of deaths, the risk of dying has increased 17 times, from three per 100,000 apprehensions in 1998 to 51 per 100,000 apprehensions in 2009.
But Dr. Bruce Parks, chief medical examiner at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, cautions that the yearly counts may not accurately represent that year's total, because many in recent years have been skeletal remains that could be people who died in previous years.
Each year since 2004, the total number of bodies found in the form of skeletal remains has accounted for a larger percentage of the total, increasing to 25 percent in 2009 from 4 percent in 2004, the Arizona Daily Star database shows.
Even without the skeletal remains, though, the number of bodies found per 100,000 apprehensions has increased from 38 in 2004 to 50 in 2009.
And some of the people found as skeletal remains could have died months earlier within the same year, especially if death occurs in the summer, when heat speeds up decomposition, said Jerónimo Garcia, a representative of the Mexican Consulate in Tucson who handles the identification and coordination of the remains.
Skeleton found in August
Skeleton found in August
One of the skeletons found in 2008 was the remains of Juana Pastrana Villanueva, a 57-year-old woman from Acapulco.
On Aug. 6, 2008, her remains were found about 60 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, in the northern part of the Tohono O'odham Reservation.
A jacket near the body contained the identification of a man from Acapulco. When Mexican officials contacted his family, they said he was alive in the United States.
He told them the body was Pastrana's.
He left his ID in that pocket because Pastrana wasn't carrying any ID, and he wanted to make sure her family knew she was dead. He knew authorities would call his family.Her remains were found three weeks later southwest of Casa Grande. She likely walked for at least six days to get there, or she might have been picked up and driven north before being dropped off again, Garcia said. The medical examiner determined Pastrana died of hyperthermia, or heatstroke, the most common cause of deaths among illegal border crossers discovered in Arizona.