June 27, 2006
U.S.-Mexico Border: The Season of Death
BY Claudine LoMonaco
A mother and her children ride in a truck to the Arizona border. Once there,
they will cross the desert in a larger group with their "coyote," or
The life of a border reporter in Arizona starts each day with a single call.
"Any more bodies?" you ask the Border Patrol. This time of year, surprise comes only if the voice on the other end says no.
Little has changed in the two years since we filmed the FRONTLINE/World story of Matias Garcia Zavaleta, except that a lot more people are dying. Last year, a record 271 people died trying to walk across the Arizona-Mexico desert. More than 500 died across the entire U.S.-Mexico border. This year is keeping pace.
The deaths trickle in over the cooler months. A couple here from a rollover. Four dead there during a cold snap. They begin in earnest once the temperature spikes over 100 degrees sometime in May. Often, a single event or weekend heralds what is known as the "season of death." In 2001, 14 died from one group. Last year, it was 12 dead over a single weekend.
For me, this year the curtain raiser came with the quiet death of a 3-year-old boy. David Audiel Rodriguez Reyes died of heat exposure on May 14. He was the youngest person to die so far this year.
David and his 25-year-old mother, Edith Rodriguez Reyes, came from Cancun, where workers live in something akin to shanty towns kept hidden from the resorts and visitors they service.
The deaths trickle in over the cooler months. A couple here from a rollover. Four dead there during a cold snap. They begin in earnest once the temperature spikes over 100 degrees sometime in May.
Rodriguez wanted to bring David across so they could join his father, who works construction in Tennessee.
On Thursday, May 11, they set out walking across the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation. It's a vast, saguaro-studded territory of searing heat and scant shade. David became ill after two days of walking and could not continue. Their "coyote," or smuggler, abandoned them and continued on with the group of about 10 other people.
The Border Patrol blames these deaths almost entirely on what they call "ruthless" smugglers. It is a simplistic explanation. These people would cross even if smugglers weren't available. The smugglers simply make it easier. But I have come to understand that there is a cold calculation at play, which places little value on the life of a little boy.
Rodriguez and her son were a couple hours from a major highway. The smuggler probably knew that and he probably could have gotten them there, where Border Patrol would have found them, possibly in time to save David's life.
But that would have risked capture of the entire group, by bringing them dangerously close to the heavily patrolled highway. And that would have meant the loss of tens of thousands of dollars.
More than 30 people are crammed into the back of a truck for a ride to the border south of Sasabe in Western Arizona. There, they will wait for the cover of night to cross.
And so the smuggler traveled on, and left Rodriguez with her son.
She sat with him for a day, searching for water, never straying too far away for fear she could get lost. On Sunday, her little boy died. She wandered the desert for more than 24 hours before the Border Patrol found her by the side of the road at 6 p.m. Monday night. She was dehydrated and in shock. She said nothing about her son. She came to an hour later at a processing station in Nogales along the border, just minutes away from being deported to the other side. "My baby is out there," she told them.
The Border Patrol agents sprung to action. Perhaps the boy was alive, they thought. Maybe we can save him. They scanned the bottom of Rodriguez's shoes and faxed the scan to the station that patrols the reservation. Agents there sped through the darkening desert and delivered the fax to search and rescue agents waiting by the highway where Rodriguez had been found.
She sat with him for a day, searching for water, never straying too far away for fear she could get lost. On Sunday, her little boy died.
They set out in the darkness with the fax as their guide and followed the footprints over rocky, rugged terrain. Rodriguez had staggered and zigzagged in her dehydrated state. At one point, it took a half hour to track just 100 feet of her journey. Six hours later, they found the boy's body under a mesquite tree. His mother had neatly place his shoes to his side and carefully folded his arms across his chest. Authorities held Rodriguez for three days while they contemplated charging her with child endangerment. She was finally released with no charges and returned to Mexico.
At around the same time Rodriguez and her son were running out of
water, U.S. Senators in Washington D.C. were gearing up for a debate on immigration reform. They passed a bi-partisan bill a week after Rodriguez was released. Immigration advocates say the Senate bill is a step in the right direction, but doesn't go nearly far enough to get people like Rodriguez out of the desert. It provides far too few guest worker visas, and would deny millions of illegal immigrants already in the country the chance to legalize their status. In any case, it is highly unlikely that conservatives in the House, who passed an immigration bill in December that would criminalize the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, will allow any kind of compromise before the 2006 election.
People didn't used to die in the desert in such great numbers. It started around 10 years ago when the U.S. crackdown on easier urban crossing areas, funneled people like Rodriguez and her son, and Matias three years before them, into more dangerous, desolate terrain. Ironically, the crackdown came at the same time as NAFTA, a trade agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, which made it easier for capital to cross the border, but harder for human beings.
I look forward to the day when the deaths stop, and my job duties change. But as long as people keep dying, I know how I'll be starting my day -- with a phone call to the Border Patrol.
Claudine LoMonaco is the border and immigration reporter for the Tucson Citizen and a freelance radio producer for American Public Media's Marketplace. Listen to one of LoMonaco's immigration reports on farm worker shortages. Also watch her original story about migrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico in "A Death in the Desert" on this Web site. The story is from 2004 and re-aired on PBS June 27.
PHOTOS: Francisco Medina/Tucson Citizen.