Immigrant Workers' Border-Crossing Struggles: Recent Deaths Accent Dangers
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7 Days of Desperation Along Mexican Border
Migrants' Dreams Die in Brutal Crossing
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 26, 2003; Page A01
MEXICO CITY, May 25 -- Olegario Pozos rode in a bus along
a southern Mexican highway on Sunday, May 11, traveling
with three of his cousins, two other men and the smuggler
they knew only as Coyote. He was guiding them from the
jobless grind of Oaxaca, their poor southern state, to the
"We'd rather work in Mexico," said Pozos, 28, as he
related the details of his journey. "But there's no work
here, so we have to try to cross."
Coyote, as human smugglers are called in Mexico, was
charging $900 each to lead them through a sparsely
populated area of western Arizona. They were farmers who
didn't know anything about their destination, Phoenix,
except that they had friends there, who would get them
jobs and pay for the trip.
Six days later, as Pozos and the others confronted life
and death in the Arizona desert, they looked down at
Coyote, lying unconscious in the sand. With temperatures
over 105 degrees, Pozos said, there was only one thing to
do -- walk on and leave the man for dead.
The smuggler would have done the same to them, they
reasoned, and it was the only way to save their own lives.
Their journey spanned the same week that 19 migrants were
found dead, packed in a tractor-trailer at a truck stop
south of Victoria, Tex. That tragedy made headlines
worldwide because so many died in one place. But in the
past five years, more than 2,000 others have died with
scant attention, because they often died alone. They
drowned in the Rio Grande, died of exposure in the baking
Arizona deserts or froze to death in the mountains. They
risked everything to earn dollars working in the
lowest-paying jobs in the United States.
In the week of the trailer deaths, at least 11 other
people died trying to cross the border, bringing the total
to at least 30. Some lasted days without food or water,
others succumbed to the blinding heat within hours. Some
were betrayed by ruthless smugglers, others were helped by
the heroism of strangers. More than 30 others were rescued
by the U.S. Border Patrol, many of them suffering from
severe exposure, some of them probably hours from death.
Among the dead were a pair of brothers from Naucalpan,
near Mexico City, who drowned in the Rio Grande near
Brownsville, Tex. They were trying to make it to New
Jersey to paint houses. A young mother from Colombia died
of heat exhaustion in the Arizona desert trying to join
her sister, who takes care of elderly people in New York
City. A newlywed from the Mexican state of Guanajuato died
in a mountain canyon in Arizona before he and his bride
could make it to a farm job in Delaware. Another was found
floating in the Rio Grande, two were found dead on the
roadside in the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation in
Arizona and others succumbed to the heat in remote corners
of Texas and Arizona.
Their stories -- drawn from dozens of interviews with
survivors, families of the dead and U.S. and Mexican
officials -- are the border's footnotes. They are the
unspectacular cases, rarely collected or spotlighted. But
a close look at those seven days in May reveals the
desperation of migrant traffic on the border, where death
has become numbingly routine.
Dehydrated and Exhausted
At 3 a.m. on Wednesday, May 14, around the same time the
bodies were being pulled out of the trailer truck in
Victoria, Olegario Pozos and his three cousins crossed the
border into the Arizona desert.
After a two-day bus ride, they had arrived Monday in
Sonoyta, a little town in far-western Sonora state, just
south of the border from Lukeville, Ariz. It is a remote
crossroads that serves as the gateway to Organ Pipe Cactus
The smuggler had told them to wait, and they'd cross in a
couple of days. He said it would be no problem -- two
nights and one day walking, and they'd be home free in
Phoenix. Pozos and his cousins had no clue that Phoenix
was about 120 miles away, and no hint of the danger ahead
"We had heard that people die trying to cross the desert,"
Pozos said in an interview a week later. "But Coyote told
us that was a different desert."
On Wednesday, in the middle of the night, Coyote said it
was time to go. They walked across the border into the
open desert. They carried several plastic jugs of water, a
few cans of tuna and some tortilla chips. Almost
immediately they realized that the chips made them even
more thirsty, so they dumped them.
They walked all day and all night. Wednesday spilled into
Thursday, and then it was Friday and they were still
walking. The only shade was their own shadows on the
desert floor, which was broiling at about 120 degrees,
even hotter than the air, like an asphalt parking lot on a
hot summer day.
They stayed together, walking, walking, dizzy from the
On Friday they ran out of water. They were not thinking
straight. They walked at different speeds and began
getting separated in the scrublands. The night offered a
little cool respite, but by Saturday they were in serious
trouble. They were dehydrated and exhausted and had no
idea where they were.
"We couldn't believe that we were still alive," Pozos
Pozos realized they had lost track of two of his three
cousins. He and the others decided to go for help.
That's when Coyote fell to the ground, unconscious and
face down in the burning sand. "We didn't do anything to
help him," Pozos said. "Imagine it: We had just left two
of our family members in the desert to go get help. What
were we going to do? Carry him? It was impossible."
So they left Coyote there. Pozos assumed he was dead. They
never did learn his real name.
They kept walking. A day later, on Sunday, they reached a
rest area on Interstate 8 at Sentinel, halfway between
Yuma and Phoenix. It was nearly 60 miles across the desert
from where they crossed the border. Someone in the rest
area called the police and a Border Patrol helicopter
found the other two cousins in the desert, along with four
people from a different group. All survived. They didn't
find Coyote's body.
Two of the men who arrived with Pozos at the rest area
paid a driver to give them a ride before the Border Patrol
arrived. They had nearly died and they were so close to
Phoenix that they wouldn't give up. Pozos thinks they made
Pozos and the others were sent back to Mexico. In a
telephone interview from a Mexican immigration service
office, Pozos said he and his cousins were still hanging
around the border. They hadn't decided what to do next.
"I can't rule out trying again," Pozos said. "But I'm
never going to do it here again. Trying to cross that
desert is crazy."
Dreams Swept Away
On Tuesday morning, May 13, Gustavo Salazar Romero, 32,
called his mother, Irene Romero Torres, from the border
city of Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico coast. "We have
arrived, and everybody is okay," he said. "Please call
Lucy and tell her that I'm fine."
The day before, Gustavo left Naucalpan, a city of
cinderblock shacks northwest of Mexico City, where paint
on a house is a sign of affluence. He and his wife, Lucia,
were raising two children there, but there was no work. He
and his brother Enrique, 29, had already spent three years
in New Jersey painting houses. Now they were going back,
this time taking along another brother, Jorge, 18, and a
family friend, Jorge Mondragon Cruz.
They all made the 14-hour bus ride to Matamoros with their
coyote, a guy from the neighborhood known as El Nariz --
The Nose. Gustavo told Lucy he'd be back by Christmas, and
he would bring enough money for them to quit renting and
buy a house. "Don't worry," he told her. "Take care of the
kids and take care of my mother. There's nothing to be
afraid of." He kissed her and got on the bus.
An hour after Gustavo called his mother to say he'd
arrived, a U.S. Border Patrol officer saw Mondragon, the
family friend, running toward him frantically along the
banks of the Rio Grande.
Two people are drowning, he said, please hurry.
The agent arrived and saw Gustavo flailing in the river,
entangled in the sinewy hydrilla plants that grow in the
warm water. He was caught in fast currents below the
surface. Enrique already had been pulled under and was
Jorge, the younger brother, stood on the bank on the
Mexican side, watching helplessly. None of the brothers
knew how to swim. The coyote ran away. The Border Patrol
agent threw a rope. But Gustavo had disappeared beneath
the murky water.
"The coyote never said anything about having to swim. He
said we could walk across," Jorge recalled a week later,
sitting in his mother's tiny house in Naucalpan. His eyes
were blood red. He wore a black ribbon pinned to the arm
of his black shirt.
They live in a shack at the bottom of a deep ravine,
guarded by a Rottweiler, next to a canal where the water
is littered with sewage and old sneakers. The kitchen roof
is made of thick cardboard, and the springs of old
mattresses serve as a fence.
It had been a one-room tin shack that flooded every time
it rained -- until Gustavo and Enrique found work in New
Jersey and sent their mother money every month --
sometimes $2,000 or more -- some of which she used to
build a solid concrete living room. Now candles burned on
the new concrete floor next to two crosses made of red and
white roses -- one cross for each of the drowned brothers.
"I would ask all these young people to think again before
they go," their mother said, crying. "And their mothers
must convince them not to go, because many times they
don't come back."
Jorge listened to it all. Would he still consider going to
the United States, even after watching his brothers die?
"I would," he said.
'I Will Be Back'
The morning that the brothers drowned, Amparo Gonzalez
Cienfuentes, 36, waved goodbye and boarded a plane in
Cali, Colombia. It was her first flight abroad. She was
bound for Mexico City, but her final destination was
really the United States.
Amparo was an accountant at a bus terminal in Cali,
Colombia's third-largest city. One of 10 brothers and
sisters, she never finished high school. Economic hard
times in Latin America made it tough to save enough to
move out of her lower-middle-class neighborhood.
So she decided to try her luck in New York City. Her
sister, Francia, 24, went illegally three years ago and
now lives comfortably as a health aide for senior
citizens. "It's a country with luck," Francia said in a
telephone interview. "It is a dream to be in the United
At the airport, Amparo's 18-year-old daughter, who was
pregnant and due to give birth in two weeks, couldn't stop
weeping. Amparo soothed her and her 13-year-old son,
telling them she was trying to make things better for all
of them. With her brother's video camera rolling, Amparo
said: "Don't cry. Don't cry. I will be back.' "
Wednesday morning, Amparo called her sister Francia from
Mexico and told her she was fine. Then she set out on foot
with a large group of migrants heading across the border
into the Arizona desert, just west of Douglas.
After only a few hours in the blinding heat, Amparo, tall
and thin, fell to the ground. In the Darwinian world of
the border, the group left her and kept walking -- except
for one Mexican man, Jorge Loza, who scooped her up in his
arms. Giving up his own American dream, he carried her for
several hours until they reached Highway 80, near Douglas.
An off-duty Border Patrol agent on his way home saw a man
holding the limp body of a woman in his arms on the
roadside. He called an ambulance, but by about 5 p.m.,
Amparo was pronounced dead of exposure at a Douglas
hospital -- after only seven hours in the desert.
Loza described Amparo's last hours to authorities, then
was sent back to Mexico. Francia said she wished she could
find him to thank him because "he showed humanity and
'I'm Going to Die'
Noe Alvarez Lopez, 22, was married in February in the
small Mexican town of Moroleon, in Guanajuato state, and
wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. Twenty years
ago Ramon Alvarez went to the United States to make a
better life for his wife and family, who stayed at home.
He quickly found work picking mushrooms in Delaware, which
pays better than the $60 a week workers can earn in
textile jobs in Moroleon.
Eventually, Ramon became a U.S. citizen and moved up the
ladder at work; he now drives a truck. Although the father
is in the United States legally, the family believed it
would take years for Noe and his new bride, Maria Miriam,
to win legal passage to the United States.
So on Tuesday, May 13, they set off on a daylong bus ride
to the Arizona border, where they met up with a smuggler
and dozens of others waiting to cross. On Wednesday, they
set off into the Huachuca Mountains west of Naco, Ariz.
Maria Miriam later told Noe's mother, Leticia Alvarez,
that the hiking was harsh. They struggled up and down
steep mountain ridges for hours. It was cool and there was
water in the canyon springs and lakes, but the climbing
was grueling in mountains that reach over 7,000 feet. Noe
became visibly weaker. He was short of breath, his ankles
hurt, he was turning yellow.
The smugglers were clear: "Out here, he who walks makes
it, he who doesn't stays behind."
Noe could no longer move. Everyone else kept walking.
Maria Miriam thought he just needed rest, but then she
felt his body growing cold, and his color faded from
yellow to purple.
"Hold me," he said weakly. "I am going to die."
Maria Miriam held him for a moment. Then she looked into
his mouth and saw it filling with blood. She screamed and
told him she was going for help. She climbed down out of
the mountains until she came to a Texaco station in Sierra
Vista. Someone there called for help, and the Border
Patrol took her into the mountains in a helicopter.
They found Noe's body where Maria Miriam had left him, in
Ramsey Canyon, a famous hummingbird preserve. His funeral
was held a week later in the church where they were
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Que todos se levanten, May all rise up,
que ni uno ni otro May all be called
se quede atras de los demas. May no one be left behind.
--Pop Wuj the others.