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2/13: Wet winter is deadly for border crossers

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    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 19, 2010
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      Wet winter is deadly for border crossers

      Brady McCombs Arizona Daily Star

      Saturday, February 13, 2010

      Enrique Zapata Senduo's life ended in a pool of muddy water underneath a cottonwood tree in the desert southwest of Picacho Peak.

      A rancher discovered the soaking-wet body of the 47-year-old Mexican in the late morning on Jan. 26. Zapata left his hometown of Mazatlan, Sinaloa, on Jan. 13 and planned to cross the border near Sasabe illegally, meaning he was likely out in the desert during the rainy days of Jan. 20-23, when nearly 2 inches fell in Southern Arizona.

      Getting wet in the winter can be deadly, said Dr. Bruce Parks, chief medical examiner at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office. Parks determined Zapata died from hypothermia, or exposure to the cold.

      This year's unusually wet winter in Southern Arizona has been lethal for illegal border crossers. Zapata was one of three illegal immigrants found that week in January who died of hypothermia. Nine of the people found since Nov. 1 were determined to have died from hypothermia - as many as the previous three winters combined.

      "When you are wet, your risk is a lot higher," Parks said. "Wet clothing takes the heat away from the body. You've lost that insulation - your body can't react."

      It hasn't been colder than usual this winter, but it has been wetter.

      The 2.10 inches of rain that fell in Tucson in January made it the eighth-wettest in the month's history and the wettest since 1993, National Weather Service data show. The 0.64 of an inch of rainfall through the first 10 days of February is nearly double the average for those days, said Ken Drozd of the National Weather Service.

      It's possible other illegal border crossers also have died from the cold this year or past years, but the cause of death often can't be determined due to the conditions of the bodies.

      This winter, for instance, the cause of death of 32 of the first 57 bodies was undetermined, the Arizona Daily Star's border-death database shows. The database is compiled using information from the Pima and Cochise County medical examiners' offices.

      Twenty of those were skeletal remains. The Border Patrol points out that these people could have died months ago, perhaps even during the summer.

      The Pima and Cochise county medical examiners' offices classify the causes of death differently, too.

      Pima County narrows the cause to hypothermia or hyperthermia. Cochise County only classifies them as exposure-related deaths. That means that many or all of the exposure-related deaths from Cochise County in the winter months also might be hypothermia.

      The 13 combined deaths attributed to hypothermia by Pima County or exposure by Cochise County this winter are more than in any of the previous five winters.

      Whether from cold-related death or other causes, there have been more bodies found this winter than in the past. The 60 bodies found from Nov. 1-Feb. 12 mark a 58 percent increase from the same period last year and are more than in any of the previous five years.

      This deadly winter continues a lethal trend: Illegal border crossers face a deadlier trek than ever across Arizona's desert.

      Despite an estimated slowdown in illegal crossings, the number of bodies found continues at the same or higher levels.

      There were 88 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in the area covered in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector in fiscal year 2009, which ended on Sept. 30, the Star's database indicates. That's up from 39 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in 2004 and three per 100,000 apprehensions in 1998.

      Through the first four months of fiscal 2010, there have been 91 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions.

      Border county law enforcement, Mexican Consulate officials, Tohono O'odham tribal officials and humanitarian groups say the unprecedented buildup of agents and border fences has caused illegal border crossers to walk longer distances in more treacherous terrain. That increases the likelihood that people will get hurt or fatigued and left behind to die.

      The Border Patrol says smugglers dictate crossing patterns, agency spokesman Mario Escalante said.

      "It's not up to us," he said.

      No More Deaths volunteers have noticed a major increase in traffic through the mountain ranges between Arivaca and Interstate 19, member Gene Lefebvre said. The humanitarian aid group runs a desert camp east of Arivaca and walks known migrant trails in the area.

      "They are staying up in the mountains longer than they ever have before," said Lefebvre, a retired pastor. "That means they are more likely to get injured or exhausted."

      Walking in higher, colder elevations could be one of the reasons for the increase in winter deaths, Parks said.

      On Jan. 14, the body of a man was found on La Jolla Peak in the Baboquivari Mountains at 6,230 feet.

      On Tuesday, a group of five No More Deaths volunteers found a decomposing body in a shallow grave covered with rocks and adorned with a handmade cross in a canyon near the town of Ruby at 4,529 feet.

      "The number of migrants dying in our desert is truly shocking," Lefebvre said. "Behind the numbers is the horrible impact on many people."

      Contact reporter Brady McCombs at bmccombs@... or 573-4213.

       
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