Mexico’s people-smugglers blamed for desert tragedy


The deaths of 14 Mexican illegal immigrants who wandered five days in a scorching Arizona desert, sparked anger on Friday against smugglers who make money running people across the border and often abandon their charges to their fate.

Mexican and U.S. officials say smugglers — known as coyotes or polleros — drove a group of 28 men and boys across the border in a van to a blistering hot section of the southwestern Arizona desert known as “The Devil’s Path.”

There, they abandoned them with insufficient water and food and half of the group died in temperatures as high as 111 degrees Fahrenheit (44 C).

“This has a lot to do with a lot of criminals, we can’t call them polleros; (they are) criminals that trick and rip off our countrymen. But also they take them on the road to death. It is truly shameful that people act that way,” Mexican President Vicente Fox told reporters.

“Instead of helping you, they just steal your money and throw you across the border and let you fend for yourself,” said Emilio Barrera, a Mexico City security guard who had seen a television news report about the 14 men who died.

Mexican officials say they have identified a smuggler involved in the incident and are working on an arrest.

U.S. President George W. Bush, whose government is working with Mexico on modifying immigration policies in part to prevent such tragedies, called Fox to express condolences.

Some 8.2 million Mexicans live in the United States, about a third of them illegally, and Mexican officials say hundreds die each year making the dangerous trek, or swim, across the border.

Universal newspaper in Mexico said these 14 deaths brings the number who have died this year on the border to 111.

Of the original group of men aged between 17 and 35 from Veracruz state on the Gulf of Mexico, 12 survivors have been rescued, and two more are still missing. Survivors told reporters they crossed the border on May 19, and walked 30 miles through the desert.

Coyotes sometimes charge more than $1,000 per person taking poor Mexicans over the border.

The business is both crude and sophisticated. It can be as simple as walking or driving someone over a remote area of the border. Or it can involve extra charges for “home delivery,” in which the new immigrant is put on a plane to join family or friends in any city in the U.S.

Often coyotes hold recently crossed immigrants in U.S. border cities and call their friends and relatives living in the United States asking for more money before they will turn them over.

Immigrants usually cross the border carrying an absolute minimum so that they can run freely if they are sighted by U.S. border patrol officials. For that reason they often run out of water.