Saturday, May 22, 2004

Arrests, deaths surge along border | �

Arrests, deaths surge along border | �

By Michael Marizco

ALTAR, Sonora - Mexican nationals crossing illegally into Arizona are dying at nearly three times the rate of last year - the deadliest year on record - in part because their anticipation of amnesty has created a spike in the number of people moving across the border.

More than 100,000 more illegal entrants have already been arrested in the deserts of Southern Arizona since Oct. 1 than in the same period a year ago , while the United States finishes putting the $10 million Arizona Border Control Initiative in place.

Coyotes - human smugglers - are responding to the U.S. promise of controlling the border by raising their fees and promising to take people through more treacherous routes, such as the mountain passes between Lukeville and Yuma, where 14 illegal entrants died three years ago.

The bodies of 61 people have been found in Arizona's desert around Tucson since Oct. 1, reports from the Mexican government show. For the same time last year, there were 21 known deaths.

Bodies have been found from the border near Nogales to as far north as Marana, 75 miles away. The data are collected by Mexico's Ministry of the Interior.

The Border Patrol, because it does not keep track of bodies other agencies find, counts 29 dead in the Tucson Sector, which covers most of Arizona.

During the same time, apprehensions jumped 60 percent to 277,000, said Rob Griffin, spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. The surge is happening in all parts of the sector and accounts for more than half of the 525,000 arrested along the entire U.S.-Mexican border.

The Border Patrol is reacting by bringing in two drone planes, four more helicopters and 290 more agents to better control the border as part of a border initiative that will be fully implemented by June 1 and last through the summer.

Antonio Manriquez, a coyote in Altar, grinned when asked if the initiative is going to blow his plans for smuggling illegal entrants into the United States this summer.

"We'll find a way; we always do," said the clean-cut smuggler with smiling eyes, as he calmly stirred his cup of coffee in a restaurant in this dry, dusty town three hours from Tucson.

Manriquez, who has worked the Altar-to-Sasabe corridor as a smuggler for two years, is still contemplating the best routes to avoid the promised increase in agents and equipment along the Arizona-Mexico border.

"Sasabe is an easier place to cross through than the west because there is less sand to wade through," he said. "There is shade, trees and one can hide more easily. But we can move through Sonoyta (Sonora), certainly."

He and other smugglers will raise the price to cross migrants. Right now, a Mexican will pay about $1,500 for the trip; Manriquez says he will be charging as high as $2,500 once summer begins.

Another change in tactics is setting up safe houses in Sonoyta and Sasabe and moving small numbers of people across, he said. Safe houses, common in Phoenix, are used to hide large numbers of smuggled migrants before moving them to another city.

Smugglers are also gathering migrants and selling them to other smugglers even before the people cross the border, said the Rev. Rene Castañeda Castro, a local priest who runs the only migrant shelter in Altar.

"I watch the buses pull up, and two or three men approach, arguing prices with the people. It's like an auction," he said.

The Border Patrol has already deployed 110 more agents and its four helicopters along the border, said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Roger Maier.

Sweeping across the desert, agents are deploying into the roughest terrains to the east and west of Tucson, gaining control over sections of the desert, then moving on and leaving agents behind to secure the ground they've controlled.

"It's the old gain control, maintain control, expand control," he said.

The men and women waiting at the church plaza in Altar to be smuggled into the United States haven't heard of any increased security at the border this summer. It's the promise of amnesty if they get to the United States right now that's drawing them.

Their hope and resolve to enter quickly come from the guest worker plan President Bush announced in January. It doesn't really offer amnesty, but it's been perceived that way in Mexico . In fact, Bush's announcement offers only the opportunity to work in the United States for three to six years before eventually applying for citizenship, but it hasn't advanced beyond the announcement stage.

"Bush's offer is adding to the numbers," said Francisco Garcia Aten, the former mayor of Altar who has watched migrants overrun his town as far back as 1998.

"Now was the time to cross. The time is not as hot, and I have an opportunity to work," said Carlos Matias De Leon, 23, who came to Altar from Chiapas, as he climbed into a van headed for Sasabe.

Lupe Rivas, a 22-year-old with family in Florida, agreed.

"They want us to work, don't they? If they didn't, they wouldn't be offering work," she said, sitting on the edge of the plaza.

Mexican officials predict the increase in enforcement in Arizona is going to push the flow of migration out toward the Sonoyta, Sonora, area where the western edges of Pima County meet Mexico and east toward Coahuila, Mexico, south of Big Bend, Texas.

"There is no vigilance in those areas, and I believe they will change their tendencies to cross through Arizona toward where there is little enforcement," said Jorge Luis Mireles Navarro, regional migration delegate in Sonora for Mexico's National Migration Institute.

"Both countries tighten the sides of the border, and the smugglers seek the vulnerable point. They're already looking for other areas to cross."

In Sasabe, Grupo Beta agents say they have counted 56,000 people riding in on the 10- and 15-passenger vans - double last year's numbers, said agency commander Carlos Amador Zozaya Moreno.

"We hope the number will begin to dwindle as the temperatures increase," he said.

Not likely, says Castañeda Castro, the priest in Altar.

"Illegal immigration is growing and growing," he said. "It's like a giant snowball now and you can't stop it."

° Contact reporter Michael Marizco at 573-4213 or


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