February 13, 2010
Associated Press / Los Angeles Times
TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — An unusually wet winter in Arizona this year has been lethal for illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico into the United States, with nine people dying from hypothermia since November.
The same number of immigrants died of hypothermia during the previous three winters combined.
"When you are wet, your risk is a lot higher," said Dr. Bruce Parks, chief medical examiner at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office. "Wet clothing takes the heat away from the body. You've lost that insulation — your body can't react."
The 2.1 inches of rain that fell in Tucson in January made it the eighth-wettest January in Arizona's recorded history, and the wettest since 1993, according to the National Weather Service. And the 0.6 inches of rainfall through the first 10 days of February is nearly double the average for those days, said Ken Drozd of the National Weather Service.
During one particularly wet week in January, the bodies of three illegal immigrants who died of hypothermia were found.
Among them was Enrique Zapata Senduo, a 47-year-old Mexican who died in a pool of muddy water under a cottonwood tree in the desert southwest of Picacho Peak, about 75 miles southeast of Phoenix.
A rancher discovered his soaking-wet body in the late morning on Jan. 26. Zapata left his hometown of Mazatlan, Sinaloa, on Jan. 13 and planned to cross the border near Sasabe illegally, meaning he was likely out in the desert during the rainy days of Jan. 20-23, when nearly 2 inches fell in southern Arizona.
It's possible other illegal border crossers also have died from the cold this year or past years, but the cause of death often can't be determined due to the conditions of the bodies.
This winter, for instance, the cause of death of 32 of the first 57 bodies was undetermined, according to the Arizona Daily Star's border-death database. The database is compiled using information from the Pima and Cochise County medical examiners' offices.
Despite an estimated slowdown in illegal crossings, the number of bodies found continues at the same or higher levels. The 60 bodies found from Nov. 1-Feb. 12 mark a 58 percent increase from the same period last year and are more than in any of the previous five years.
Border authorities and humanitarian groups attribute the increase in deaths to the buildup of agents and border fences, which cause immigrants to walk longer distances in more treacherous terrain.
"They are staying up in the mountains longer than they ever have before," said Gene Lefebvre, a member of No More Deaths, a humanitarian group. "That means they are more likely to get injured or exhausted."