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U.S.-Mexico Border: The Season of Death

Women and children in front seat of a truck.

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 smuggler.

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.

Immigrants piled into an open truck.

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.


jovane james - london, england
This is really sad

Ken M. - Bridgeport, Ct
Q...How can we make our participation in N.A.F.T.A. work for the betterment of the United States? A... Remember our old friend Ross Perot? Read the proposals he suggested when running for the Presidency.

I could not believe the way Americans behaved. They just let their selfish behaviors, the political system, and laws control Mexicans' fates. The death rates are increasing double every day. We need to act upon the laws any time soon. Immigrants are not immigrants to me. They are families, humans to me. All of us are immigrants, it is just that our times were different whether in past, present, or future. I am sorry to say this but I am so disgusted with Americans.

Max Elliot - Green Valley, AZ
I live 30 miles from the border and I see this almost daily. The DRUG SMUGGLERS and the PEOPLE SMUGGLERS. May of them are living in Sasabe Son, Mexico. Sasabe, Arizona has a population of 37 with a brand new school.They come to school from Mexico. These are poor people and we have many poor people living here and we need to help these people before we go over the border to help others.They come here as cheap labor for businesses that take advanage of them.

Yes people do come here to escape extreme poverty in their countries, but countries like Mexico need to participate more in the industrialization of its nation, for the betterment of its people. Don't use the U.S. as a scapegoat, life may be slightly better here for most, great for a few, but if Mexico would start holding coporations partially accountable for their industry while in Mexico, it could help fuel the economies of most and not just fill the pockets of one or two. I go to Mexico very often, she is a wonderously magnificent and ancient nation, that has more natural resources than the United States of America does...Carpe Diem Mexico!

Angelo Sandoval - Quezon City, Philippines
They do it to escape extreme poverty and we have no control over it unless we do. It's just like talking in a conversation; one tells something, the other too says one thing. But if there's only one person talking and giving words while the other is not listening, then the conversation would be useless. The action and the point would be nothing, dead. It's not just in this part of the world where people escape and sneak in to be relieved but many places too. If not now to act, when then? I say this site is something to look out for and read; it shows us what really is the world right now.

The local news and even the national news circumnavigate the heart of this issue: people are losing their lives because they are trying to escape desperate poverty in order to make better lives for themselves and their relatives. It is not about economics or politics, it is about life, and respect and love for our neighbors. Keep the torch high, Frontline World.

Luis Reina - Pembroke Pines, Florida
I am ashamed that we allow this to happen.

Tom Carlson - Bisbee, Arizona
Please keep this kind of focus on the sensless deaths of those who try to cross our border to make a better life for themselves and their families. There is far too much rhetoric on enforcement, walls and other totally unproductive ways to "solve" the current migration north explosion. This untold human suffering of those who have been coming here for work for generations need not be. We who live on the U.S.-side of the border are hard at work to try to mitigate these calamaties, and need your kind of exposure to help direct this struggle back to solutions that work at the root causes, e.g. NAFTA reform, among others.These are decent human beings with the same family values that we share, and should never be lumped with those who come to cause violence and disruption. God has no borders, and we owe our fellow human beings the dignity and justice they deserve. More programs like this one please!