Desert getting dangerous for illegals

Arizona desert increasingly dangerous for illegal border crossing

Maria Leon, EFE - 6/4/2002

DOUGLAS, Arizona - For people trying to illegally enter the United States, Arizona's desert is one of the few remaining options left due to heightened security on the Mexican-U.S. border after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The area, which was highly guarded before the attacks, has since become practically impenetrable.

The 3,200-kilometer (2,000-mile) border is patrolled daily by 1,200 agents, 450 of which guard the Tucson Sector in Arizona.

All federal agencies and departments, from the Customs Service to the Border Patrol and National Guard, have boosted security in the area.

The intense surveillance has forced undocumented immigrants and "coyotes," or immigrant smugglers, to take more dangerous routes toward the United States.

"The desert is the only option we have left," said Marcos Ruiz, a Mexican from Michoacan who arrived in Tucson one week ago after walking for three days.

Ruiz explained that smugglers make their "clients" take rural roads at night, leaving the daylight hours for resting.

"We left in two groups of twenty. If the first group is detained, the second one is alerted and turns back," she said.

Before arriving in the United States, Ruiz took refuge for two weeks in a house in Nogales, across the border from Nogales, Arizona.

The illegal immigrant said he paid 2,000 dollars for "the crossing," and extra money for shelter, food and "luxuries" like soap, toothpaste and deodorant.

To avoid the constant surveillance of Border Patrol agents, immigrant smugglers follow routes of ditches, where the undocumented can hide to avoid detection.

To avoid highway checkpoints in the United States, Ruiz said the smugglers made walk to Phoenix.

According to human rights organizations, the border has become a fatal trap where immigrants risk their lives on a daily basis and where almost one dies every day.

"The immigrants' desire to come to the United States is so great, they don't care if they have to risk their own lives," said Isabel Garcia, an immigration attorney and director of Arizona's Coalition for Human Rights.

Garcia also criticized the increased surveillance and detentions of immigrants that resulted after U.S. authorities launched "Operation Guardian" in Arizona.

In the last three years, the operation has caused the death of 1,200 undocumented immigrants, Garcia claimed.

Official statistics show that most deaths occurred in Arizona.

Nonetheless, despite the fact border-area deaths continue, the overall number has fallen drastically.

Border patrol spokesperson for the Tucson sector, Rob Daniels, said smugglers are the ones guilty of putting their own interests above the lives of undocumented immigrants.