Under a cloud of marker smoke, a Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue agent edges his way over a cliff to rescue a "victim" 60 feet below. It was a demonstration by the U.S. Border Patrol in Peña Blanca Canyon on Tuesday.

The remains of more than 2,000 border crossers have been found in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector in the last decade.

Several hundred of them have never been identified.

Exposure to the elements is the leading cause of death, which peaks during the summer.

The biggest challenge for the Border Patrol, said Manuel Padilla, chief of the Tucson Sector, is to make sure migrants know the dangers of crossing through Arizona before they put their lives in the hands of smugglers.

The Border Patrol created the Border Safety Initiative in 1998 with the goal of educating would-be migrants not only of the high temperatures in the desert, which can rise to 120 degrees, but also of the assaults and abuses from smugglers.

"Not a day goes by when we don't find immigrants who say they were abandoned by their smuggler," Padilla said.

Last year, the Border Patrol expanded the program to include a media event for reporters on both sides of the border, including the top countries where migrants apprehended come from: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras; and also for the primary U.S. destination cities: Phoenix, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Atlanta.

On Tuesday, more than two dozen journalists geared up with hiking boots, sunglasses and hats to walk with agents in the Peña Blanca Canyon about five miles from the Nogales border. Human trafficking through the area has decreased, agents said, but drug trafficking is still strong.

The busiest and most dangerous area in the Tucson Sector is the desert around Casa Grande and the Tohono O'odham Nation, where migrants can walk for 60 miles before finding a place to get water or ask for help.

Border deaths are down 28 percent so far this year, Padilla said, but there's still a lot of work to be done. "One death is a tragedy."

The migration flow is shifting from Arizona to south Texas, where the Rio Grande Valley Sector now surpasses Tucson in the number of remains found and people rescued. The majority of the migration-flow increase is from Central America.

"Many (migrants) have no idea of the dangers they face," said Jimena Díaz, consul general of Guatemala in Phoenix. "And if they do, they are pushed by poverty."

José Chacón, consul general of El Salvador in Tucson, worries about smugglers using the prospects of immigration reform to lure immigrants in the summer.

The Border Patrol is partnering with groups such as Humane Borders or the Samaritans, who leave water in strategic places, to spread the message and prevent deaths. "Sometimes people see enforcement and humanitarian aid as opposing each other," said Juanita Molina, executive director of Humane Borders. "The reality is our common mission is to preserve human life."


San Diego

2 deaths

5 rescues

El Centro

2 deaths 4 rescues


3 deaths

1 rescue


61 deaths

233 rescues

El Paso

0 deaths

13 rescues

Big Bend

1 death

16 rescues

Del Rio

9 deaths

11 rescues


26 deaths

394 rescues

Rio Grande Valley

77 deaths

332 rescues

Figures from Oct. 1, 2012, to April 30

Source: Customs and Border Protection

"Not a day goes by when we don't find immigrants who say they were abandoned by their smuggler."

Manuel Padilla, Border Patrol chief of the Tucson Sector

Contact Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo