Border Crossings Get Even Riskier
By Kris Axtman | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
HOUSTON Lying atop a mountain of boxes inside a sweltering
tractor-trailer his face just inches from the ceiling
Luciano Alcocer said one final prayer before slipping into unconsciousness.
"I just kept thinking about my family in Mexico. Finally, I said,
'God, I'm in your hands now,' " says Mr. Alcocer from his temporary
home in Dallas. The next thing the illegal immigrant remembers is
the rush of air when the trailer doors were flung open more
than 12 hours after the harrowing ordeal began in West Texas.
Of more than 40 immigrants inside the unventilated trailer, two
died two more in a long summer of deaths along the USMexico
As the border has become ever more tightly guarded, illegal immigrants
are increasingly forced to rely on wily smugglers whose tactics
often involve harrowing dangers while offering no guarantee of successful
This summer, because of heightened security along the border since
the terrorist attacks, immigrants are becoming more desperate to
find ways to cross, and human smugglers are becoming more unscrupulous
in their tactics.
"Since 9/11, we have seen a massive increase in the numbers of
people paying to be smuggled into the United States," says Robert
Fuentes, in charge of the Border Patrol's intelligence unit in Del
Rio, Texas. "The fear of being apprehended is greater because of
the influx of security and posturing on both the northern and southern
In fact, while the number of immigrant apprehensions is down by
28 percent over last year (translating into fewer attempted crossings),
the number of rescues by the Border Patrol is up by 42 percent
suggesting that this summer has indeed been more dangerous.
And in some states, such as Arizona, it's been more deadly. Since
January, there have been 141 immigrant deaths in Arizona
with the majority occurring in the summer months. There were just
102 in all of 2001.
The causes range from suffocation in trucks to heat exhaustion
and dehydration in the desert. "The number of deaths in our sector
are at an all-time high," says Robin Hoover, pastor of the First
Christian Church in Tucson and president of Humane Borders, a relief
organization that sets up water stations in the desert. "What is
different is that the migrants, smugglers, and guides are moving
Farther west into the desert where there are fewer Border Patrol
agents and less surveillance. Experts say smugglers or coyotes
are having to find more remote, dangerous routes to remain
undetected, but it also makes rescue attempts more difficult.
"These smugglers couldn't care less about human life. It's become
big business," says Mario Villarreal with the Border Patrol in Washington.
"The smuggling of human cargo now rivals that of drug smuggling."
For example, says Mr. Villarreal, smuggling fees in the 1980s and
early '90s were between $50 and $100 a person. Now, coyotes are
charging $1,000 to $2,000 a person. But with this fee increase has
come little added benefit.
Some smugglers lie and tell immigrants a desert trek will be four
to six hours when in fact it is three days or more. Some don't adequately
inform immigrants of what to bring in terms of food, water, and
clothing. Some abandon immigrants in the desert if they are unable
to keep up.
In Alcocer's case, this was his first trip to the US, and he says
he hired a coyote to ensure that he would make it. He paid the coyote
(whom he never saw) $1,600 for safe passage from Ciudad Juarez to
After he crossed the Rio Grande, he waited for three days at a
safe house near El Paso. Then, about midnight on July 26, a semi
pulled up and loaded the group into the trailer with little water
and no food. When some of the men protested, claiming they had been
told they would ride in the cab, they were assured it was air-conditioned.
As soon as the doors closed, the air became scarce and the heat
When the truck successfully passed the checkpoint at Sierra Blanca
but did not stop the men became desperate. They began
banging on the inside of the trailer walls to alert attention. They
opened the boxes in hopes of finding more water or food. Instead,
the boxes of medical supplies contained plastic tubes that they
jammed through cracks in the trailer to suck in fresh air.
More than 12 hours later, they were rescued after passing motorists
saw the tubes, as well as some of the men's belts, sticking out
of the trailer. The immigrants are being allowed to stay in the
US while the case against the smugglers goes forward. A conviction
could result in the death penalty.
The government is prosecuting smugglers in increasing numbers,
and judges are handing down stiffer sentences. In February, Border
Patrol agents in Sarita, Texas, found 78 immigrants stuffed into
the trailer of a semi. The driver pleaded guilty to transporting
undocumented immigrants and received 10 years in prison.
Back in the Del Rio sector, the first three cases against smugglers
who are charged with immigrant endangerment are working their way
through the courts. One involves a smuggler who tried to escape
the authorities and rolled a vehicle containing four immigrants.
"These prosecutions really show that we are really cracking down
on the smuggler and want to send a message that if you endanger
people's lives, we are going to take action against you," says Mike
DeBruhl, an assistant chief in the Border Patrol's Del Rio sector.
The Rev. Dr. Hoover, of Humane Borders, argues against the portrayal
of smugglers and guides as evil. "What you see is a concerted effort
on the part of the US government to demonize the coyote," he says.
"But US border policies have created the smuggling industry. And
putting more pressure on existing migrant routes [sends] migrants
to more dangerous areas."
For his part, Alcocer of Mexico City says he will never use another.
"It was an experience that is going to haunt me for the rest of
my life," he says, "and I wouldn't wish it on anyone else."
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