Desert beacons help save lives along border

Beacons in Arizona desert help prevent border deaths

2014-05-01T00:00:00Z Beacons in Arizona desert help prevent border deathsBy Perla Trevizo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A Salvadoran brother and sister were trekking through the Southern Arizona desert when he had to stay behind because he couldn’t keep up.

The smuggler said another group was on its way and would pick up the 18-year-old, encouraging his younger sister to go on.

That was three months ago, and the Salvadoran Consulate in Tucson has not been able to find him, Consul Ludmila Aguirre said during the Border Patrol Border Safety Initiative Wednesday morning while standing next to a 30-foot rescue beacon the agency uses to help migrants in distress.

While the number of apprehensions has decreased in the Border Patrol Tucson Sector, the rate of people dying has remained constant. Since fiscal year 2011, there have been 16 border crosser remains found for every 10,000 apprehensions — only falling slightly to 15 in 2012.

“Addressing this issue of border deaths in the desert is everyone’s business,” Tucson Sector Border Patrol Chief Manuel Padilla told a group of humanitarian organization members, consuls and journalists before the Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue demonstrated a rope technical extraction with a Black Hawk helicopter in Brown Canyon, just east of Baboquivari Peak.

Participants did a three-quarter-mile hike through scrub and mesquite trees along an area known for migrant traffic before going up a hill to where a beacon is located.

The Tucson Sector has 22 rescue beacon towers with mirrors and a blue light to attract immigrants who need help. Once there, they can push a red button that sends a signal to the stations.

In fiscal 2013, there were 97 activations that resulted in 165 people being rescued. Through March 21, there have been 56 activations and 80 people rescued.

Just Tuesday night, Padilla said, agents rescued an immigrant in the Ajo area. He was robbed of his money, food and water and was wandering in the desert for about a day before he followed the blue light of one of nine beacons in the Ajo station area.

“Nobody is nice out here — either bandits or the smugglers or scouts; when they come across someone who doesn’t belong to their group, they take advantage of that,” said Scott Good, patrol agent in charge of the Ajo station.

The Border Safety Initiative is a binational humanitarian strategy that started in 1998 to bring awareness to the dangers of the desert and of crossing illegally.

“Imagine doing the walk we just did in 113-degree weather,” Padilla asked. “It’s impossible for a person to carry enough water.”

A person in the desert needs about a gallon of water for every hour walked. It takes some immigrants five to nine days to walk to places like Casa Grande and Phoenix from west of Sasabe.

“Many risk their lives because they are not aware of the dangers,” including the wildlife, Padilla said. Hikers Wednesday almost stepped on a large rattlesnake on their way to the beacon.

Preventing border deaths in the desert is a priority for the Mexican government, Ricardo Pineda, the consul in Tucson, said. “Each death is unacceptable.”

The Mexican government launched a campaign last year to warn people of the dangers of crossing and works closely with Pima County’s medical examiner to help identify border crossers’ remains.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or 573-4210. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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