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Advocates: Border Patrol chases contribute to desert deaths

Enforcement strategy creates 'graveyard of the missing' in Arizona, activists say

For several days, José Cesario Aguilar Esparza, 34, and his two nephews hid out in caves preparing to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Sometime around March 6, 2015, the three men and a guide crossed into the United States, trekking across the high desert mountains of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument just southeast of Ajo, about 50 miles west of Tucson.

The moon was a waning crescent that night, so the men would have walked in near darkness along the rugged terrain north of Mt. Ajo. However, Border Patrol agents guided by helicopters equipped with cameras that can detect heat, or trucks equipped with night-vision and radar, were able to track them. 

When several agents arrived, the men scattered and the agents gave chase. Both of Aguilar's nephews were arrested, but Aguilar had disappeared. One of the nephews said he heard the sound of someone falling and a scream. 

Later, agents found Aguilar's lifeless body. He had tumbled down a 200-foot cliff, and landed eerily on his feet, slumped against the rocks. 

Aguilar's death is one of several highlighted in a report from two human rights organizations — No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos — who say that by chasing immigrants in order to apprehend them, Border Patrol agents contribute to the number of people who die or disappear in the desert each year. 

The report "Deadly Apprehension Methods" is part one of a larger project focused on the disappearance of people in the southern deserts, which argues that U.S. border enforcement agencies are "fueling a missing persons crisis." 

A second report will focus on the destruction and interference with humanitarian aid, and a third will review what the groups called a discriminatory lack of emergency response by local and federal agencies, including Border Patrol, when it comes to border crossers.

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'Graveyard of the missing'

Members of No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos presented their findings in Nogales on Wednesday morning, using the 18-foot-high border fence as a backdrop. 

Sophie Smith, a member of No More Deaths and one of the report's authors, said that walls in border cities were "deadly weapons" that were built to deflect border crossers away from resources and civilization and "out into the farthest reaches of the deserts of Arizona and into the brush-lands of south Texas." 

"They are an essential part of the U.S. border security effort, which strands migrants and refugees out in the wilderness, without access to food, water or rescue," putting people without papers into "mortal danger," she said. 

Smith called the desert a "graveyard of the missing" and said that U.S. policies, specifically the concept of "prevention through deference," was the causing of this problem. 

In 1994, the commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Doris Meisnner, outlined the future of border enforcement in a strategic plan that relied on the concept of "prevention through deterrence." Among the keystones of Meissner's plan was the use of fencing and infrastructure along "traditional entry and smuggling routes," which would force people "over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement." 

As a consequence, more and more people began trekking through the vast Sonoran desert, away from cities like Nogales. 

Since the 1990s, at least 6,029 people have died crossing into the United States, according to figures from the Border Patrol. However, that number might underestimate the number of deaths by as much as 43 percent and more than 8,600 people may have died in the desert, said No More Deaths. 

"We have to understand, people who are in the desert for days are already especially vulnerable," said Cristen Vernon, a member of Derechos Humanos. "It's not enough for Border Patrol agents to say that they're just doing their job. It's enforcement, it's their job that often leads to these deaths," she said.

Officials point to smugglers' lies

A spokesman with the public affairs office of the Tucson Sector Border Patrol said that many immigrant deaths result from smugglers, who "knowingly victimize people wanting quick passage into the United States."

"Smugglers lie, telling their 'customers' their passage will be safe, but in reality, the terrain is treacherous and the conditions are extreme. Many are led to their deaths by smugglers more concerned about making money than they are about the lives of others," the spokesman wrote. 

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The Tucson Sector has "deployed assets and resources to areas where a majority of immigrant deaths and rescues occur," he said, noting that the agency has deployed 36 rescue beacons throughout the sector, and that all Border Patrol agents are trained to handle immediate medical needs in the field. 

This includes 230 agents trained as emergency medical technicians, as well as 54 Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue agents, often called BORSTAR agents. 

"CBP values human life, and we collaborate closely with foreign government officials, law enforcement partners, and community organizations to educate potential immigrants about the true dangers of crossing the border illegally," said the spokesman, who declined to be named.

The agency has taken great pains to show its humanitarian side, hosting annual Border Safety events for the media and Mexican officials, and has launched a public relations campaign in Mexico designed to convince people that the desert is too deadly to cross. 

Nonetheless, thousands of people continue to cross the southwestern deserts each year. In September alone, Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector apprehended 4,527 people. 

In November 2013, Derechos Humans created the Missing Migrant Crisis Line as a way to deal with hundreds of missing persons calls made to the group. In 2015, the group had opened more than 1,200 cases and of those, less than a third resulted in the person being found alive. In all but a sliver of cases, the missing man or woman has simply disappeared in the desert. 

In nearly 41 percent of cases documented by the groups, someone was injured or killed during a chase by Border Patrol agents. This includes people who likely died because they were disorientated during the chase, were injured as they tried to flee, or suffered medical complications. 

The report relies on case data collected by Derechos Humanos's Missing Migrant Crisis Line, and supplemented by a survey of 58 people who had attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border at least once in the last five years. 

According to the report, someone was injured by the elements at least 41 percent of time when agents gave chase, suffering broken bones, sprains, blisters, and cuts. 

This had severe consequences, even if people stayed together they were given what the groups called a "haunting decisions" by having to decide to leave someone behind when they could no longer walk because of an injury, or try to return to them, but never being able find them again. 

Similarly, in 42 percent of chases, someone became lost as they scattered trying to flee Border Patrol agents, often losing track of not just their location, but also their guide and supplies. 

In 2015, the Missing Migrant team identified at least 84 cases in which the chaos of an apprehension was "explicitly named as the event that caused the person to go missing." 

Of these cases, more than a third of the people who went missing either died or have disappeared, the group said. 

The group also highlighted the use of helicopters, which they said were "particularly dangerous." More than one-third of cases involved a helicopter, and people were more likely to become lost if a helicopter was present in a chase, the group said. 

Smith said that helicopter pilots were known to "dust" people on the ground by intentionally tipping the rotors and creating clouds of dust and sand that minimized visibility. 

The group also said that a "common result" of chases was the loss of belongings, including water. Many people reported dropping water, food and clothing during a chase. 

"Water bottles, often carried in the hands instead of in a backpack, are typically the first thing dropped," the report said. 

In at least 18 percent of cases, people reported that Border Patrol agents used some kind of force, which includes not only tackles, but also the use of Tasers, dogs, and even in some cases, patrol vehicles, the group said. 

One man, identified only as Ernesto, was tackled by a Border Patrol agent as he tried to flee. According to Ernesto, the agent hit him repeatedly over the head. Three months later, while he was in detention, Ernesto complained of vision problems, and went to a doctor to "get glasses." The doctor ordered a scan of Ernesto's brain and discovered that his brain was swelling, a likely result of the blows to his head by the agent, the group said. 

Some injuries were accidentally caused by agents. 

One man, identified only as David, suffered a fractured knee after a Border Patrol accidentally ran over him with his ATV, the group said. Another man, Jesús had a stick driven into his eye by the rotor wash of a Blackhawk helicopter. 

Even Tasers, referred to a "less-lethal" weapons by Border Patrol agents, can be deadly in the desert. The report quoted medical experts with No More Deaths, who said that severe dehydration can make the heart "more irritable and at greater vulnerability to electrical disturbances from a Taser." 

The use of force also creates a cycle of violence that only worsens the situation, said Smith. 

Border crossers, the group said, may be more likely to flee because they fear violence, and in turn, agents more be likely to use force when they apprehend people, she said. 

"Unless drastic change occurs, the cycle of violence will have increasingly deadly impacts on border crossers," Smith said.  

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The bones of an unidentified man, who likely died from a fall on the Tohono O'odham Nation, held for identification at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.