Border Patrol agent Mario Agundez swivels his chair from the computer screen, bows his head and closes his eyes.

To his left ear he presses a cell phone with a white sticker that reads, "911 phone." His right hand grips his temple.

"If you are looking south, are the mountains close on your left or right?" he asks in Spanish.

The caller, a man named Hector, says the mountains to his left are large and close; the ones to his right are in the distance, across a highway. Hector and five others are lost and without water somewhere near Sasabe.

"OK, great, now I know where you are, give or take," Agundez says, opening his eyes and swiveling back to the Google Earth map on his computer screen. "I'm going to call some agents out there. If you hear a patrol car, call me back."

In what has become an increasingly common scene in the past three years, Agundez is trying to determine from this 911 call the location of a group of illegal immigrants in distress. The calls are patched through by county dispatchers, and it's Agundez's task to narrow the search area to a manageable zone.

Another day, another rescue

On this afternoon — another scorching summer day with temperatures reaching 105 degrees — Agundez gets sucked into a four-hour flurry of phone calls, juggling three potential rescues from Sierra Vista to Gila Bend. Other agents help out by making phone calls and brainstorming possible locations of lost border crossers. But Agundez, 36, is the point man.

A native Spanish-speaker and 10-year veteran of the Border Patrol — the last nine in the agency's search-and-rescue team, called Borstar — Agundez has become the agency's Mr. 911. He is the triggerman who decides whom and what to send, and where, on each rescue initiated by emergency calls.

When the agency designated a 911 cell phone in 2005, Agundez was among several Spanish-speaking agents who would take the calls, which were few and far between.

In 2007, the native of Mexicali, Mexico, thrust himself into the lead role by establishing rudimentary guidelines for how to handle the calls. The calls began increasing, and by mid-2008, the role had morphed into an around-the-clock responsibility with life-or-death consequences.

"My bed is my office," Agundez said. "In my bed, I have my service radio, my government-issued phone, my 911 cell phone, my home phone, this flashlight — and a disgruntled wife right next to me."

911 calls growing

The number of rescue attempts started by 911 calls has increased fivefold in the past three years, accounting for 42 percent of all attempts made by Borstar this fiscal year.

Agents attribute the spike to more illegal border crossers carrying cell phones and smugglers allowing them to have the devices. In the past, smugglers would take away phones for fear they could be tracked. Today, however, smugglers not only allow the phones but use them to convince illegal border crossers they will be safe, Agundez said.

It became too much to handle alone, so he trained six other Borstar agents. Even when he's not on duty, he helps out if needed, including when on vacation.

"Someone is calling you and telling you, 'My wife is dying next to me' or 'I'm dying,' " said Agundez, who joined the Border Patrol in 1999 after being a Navy corpsman. "I don't care what kind of job you do, if you have some kind sense of pride in yourself you are going to try the best you can to help that person, be it friend or foe."

Challenges abound

The decisions that fall to Agundez are often complex.

For starters, he can't send the cavalry of agents and helicopters on every call because he knows rescue missions divert resources from the agency's primary mission of stopping illegal border crossers and drug smugglers.

Recently, he's been receiving prank rescue calls he believes are made by smugglers hoping to cross agents up.

Determining callers' locations can be extremely difficult, especially when they are lost, tired and report seeing only mesquite trees and distant mountains, which could describe nearly all of Arizona's border area.

Technology helps — county dispatchers can sometimes provide GPS coordinates within miles — in some cases, feet — of where the call originated. But on many calls, the most important information comes from Agundez's knowledge of the terrain and his ability to calm callers and get key information from them.

Looking for Hector

After the initial call, Hector, an illegal immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico, calls back four times in an hour, providing updates on what he hears and sees.

Agundez asks several questions: Where did you cross the border? Are you in the mountains or on flatlands? Have you crossed any paved roads? What do you see? Are you east or west of the nearest highway? How long have you been walking?

He knows the group is east of Sasabe but has yet to pinpoint where. When Hector mentions for at least the 10th time that they have no water, Agundez responds firmly:

"I'm very sorry but I can't send you water over the phone, so I need you to settle down. We are going to focus on finding you."

He demands that people in distress take responsibility for their rescue and doesn't tolerate whining or unnecessary talking.

Time is always the enemy: Cell-phone batteries can die. Helicopter fuel can run out. Day can become night.

Getting closer

About an hour in, Agundez knows agents must be close: Hector says he can hear sirens in the distance.

Agundez calls an agent on one cell phone while staying on the line with Hector on the other. He keeps both lines open so the agent can hear what Hector is saying.

Every few minutes, Agundez delivers instructions to fellow Borstar agent David Hagee, who sits next to him, talking to a dispatcher who is relaying instructions to Border Patrol agents in the area.

The rescue

One hour and 15 minutes after Hector's first call, an agent reports seeing the group, and Hector reports seeing the patrol car.

The agent has found the group of six about two miles north of the border. Hector and the others are tired and need water, but otherwise are fine.

Not all rescue attempts end this well. The other two 911-initiated rescue attempts this day end in a death and a mystery.

A 911 call patched through from Maricopa County about two men being dragged underneath a tree concludes with the recovery of a deceased 26-year-old southwest of Gila Bend.

A call out of Cochise County from six people lost east of the Huachuca Mountains and south of Sierra Vista brings no resolution. A helicopter search of the area finds nothing and a caller named Renee never calls back after on-and-off communication for about 90 minutes.

The group, which included two people dry-heaving and two crying children, might have found help at a nearby highway, or their cell-phone battery might have run down. Or it could have been a prank call.

One search ends, one begins

Two minutes after the successful rescue of Hector's group, Agundez and Hagee are sharing a laugh when the 911 cell phone rings again.

It's a call from a No More Deaths camp near Arivaca about a 60-year-old man who has been left behind in the desert.

Agundez throws his head back in disbelief. Then he scoots up to the desk and begins scribbling GPS coordinates on his notepad.

Another search begins.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or