14 abandoned border crossers die in Arizonan desert; others missing

Thursday, May 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WELLTON, Ariz. (AP) _ Fourteen illegal immigrants have died and at least three others were missing Thursday, five days after smugglers abandoned them in the blistering heat of the Arizona desert, the Border Patrol said.

Rescuers used helicopters and four-wheel-drive vehicles early Thursday to search for the missing Mexican immigrants. They earlier found 11 survivors, who were hospitalized for heat exhaustion and severe dehydration. Some were unconscious when found.

Searchers had found 11 bodies Wednesday, and one immigrant died en route to a hospital. Near midnight, searchers found an additional body, then found one more around 5 a.m., Border Patrol spokesman Maurice Moore said in Yuma.

The assistant chief for the Yuma sector said footprints indicated that three others remained missing. Originally agents had thought four were missing, rather than five.

``We intend to work this until we've made sure that there's no one left out there,'' Moore said. ``It's in the middle of nowhere there.''

Survivors said the group, some of them said to be from the Mexican state of Veracruz, was smuggled into the United States on Saturday east of Yuma in the rugged terrain of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The smugglers left them there, promising to return with water and instructing them to walk for ``a couple of hours'' to a highway.

But they never came back. The highway was more than 50 miles from where they were abandoned.

The Border Patrol began its search Wednesday after five sunburned survivors found agents and sought help. As temperatures climbed as high as 115 degrees, searchers rescued six more immigrants and discovered the bodies of 11 people. A 12th person died on the way to the hospital.

Search teams were operating out of Wellton, 130 miles southwest of Phoenix. The bodies were discovered about 25 miles from the Mexican border.

The 14 immigrants who succumbed to exposure made up the largest group of border crossers to die in Arizona in more than 20 years. In July 1980, 13 Salvadorans died.

``This is evidence of the callousness and the ruthlessness of these smugglers who have now taken human lives to turn them into a commodity,'' Border Patrol spokesman Rene Noriega said in Tucson. Noriega said.

Southern Arizona became a popular crossing point for illegal immigrants in the 1990s, after crackdowns in California and Texas pushed more people to try to enter the country through remote and 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, 2000. Many of them died from exposure.

``What's causing it is the deadly strategy of the Border Patrol that has forced people into the most hazardous areas of the desert,'' said the Rev. John Fife, a Tucson pastor who supports a program that built a watering station for immigrants in Arizona.

In August 1997, eight Mexican illegal immigrants drowned after being swept away by a 15-foot high 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.

``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 also sets up water stations for border crossers. ``For many of the people who cross, they have no idea what they are encountering.''