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Immigrant Workers' Border-Crossing Struggles: Recent Deaths Accent Dangers

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  • Donna Dove
    ... owner@mexicosolidarity.org ----- 7 Days of Desperation Along Mexican Border Migrants Dreams Die in Brutal Crossing By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
    Message 1 of 1 , May 28, 2003
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      ---- Forwarded message from Mexico Solidarity Network <list-
      owner@...> -----

      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
      U.S. border.

      "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
      National Monument.

      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
      of them.

      "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.

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