Border Death Traps

Nuevo Laredo, Mexico -- In this crowded, bustling town, migrants gather to collect their strength and make connections that will take them across the watery border and safely by road -- they hope -- to work or join family and friends in the United States. The horrific discovery of a trailer truck filled with dead and dying undocumented migrants near Victoria, Texas, about four hours north, is a vivid picture of the risks they face. Yet, even images of blue-gloved officers picking about for evidence as bodies of the suffocated lay still on the ground -- photos running in newspapers throughout Latin America -- are unlikely to deter the kind of expectant travelers who reach this town. Future Victorias loom.

"It's unfair -- the professionals migrate without danger," said 22-year-old Raul just days before the Victoria incident. A jobless El Salvadoran, Raul said he traveled for weeks fending off predatory Mexican police and gangs of youths his own age to reach this crossing point. He was headed for New York, where he believed an uncle lived. Once he crossed the Rio Grande, Raul figured the hired coyote -- a human smuggler -- would lead him across the desert until "some kind of transport" collected him and others for the ride to the central Houston bus terminal, from which the undocumented fan out across the country. Coyote cost: $1,500.

Hundreds of young men wait here nervously every day in sight of the tantalizing "line," a shallow strip of the Rio Grande or grassy leap from many points in town, with a gigantic U.S. flag visible flapping widely over the sister city of Laredo on the other side. To talk to some of them is to hear so many stories of determination that it's hard to believe another Victoria will not happen.

"We can give (our children) a life if we cross," said Antonio, one of three Honduran fathers taking a break installing windows at a shelter run by Roman Catholic nuns. An out-of-work sewing machine operator, Antonio knew the dangers of crossing the border clandestinely, but said factory jobs at home paid just $15 a week. His new Honduran friends, met on the migrants' trail, nodded in assent. "He might not recognize me now," said Antonio of a 2-year-old at home, "but we have slept in the streets and suffered other terrible things to get this far. When he grows up, he will know what a father does."

The packed trailer outside Victoria claimed l8 lives, including a young boy reportedly found in his father's arms. It was the highest single death toll in an immigrant smuggling incident in recent memory. Less visible along the Rio Grande and in the flat, hot desert between here and Victoria is the painfully regular incidence of individual migrant fatalities, averaging almost one a day in the last few years, according to one attempted counting. Drowning, dehydration, extreme weakness that draws attacks of wild animals -- all are causes of the deaths noted by researchers at the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research.

"For every body found there is certainly one that isn't," said the center's co-director, Nestor Rodriguez. Bodies decompose quickly in the water, and the sun and animals make short work of other remains. In his Houston office recently, Rodriguez pulled out a file of photos and spread some across his desk. A middle-aged woman smiled in a hammock on a porch, a teen-age boy mugged for the camera and a young man held aloft a baby boy. Once word got out that the center was tracking the nameless border deaths, families sent photos and descriptions of sons and even mothers gone missing.

With summer coming, temperatures among the nopal cactus and low scrub bushes will top 100 degrees. "The desert has the upper hand right now," said Rodriguez. Yet the factors that push Mexicans and Central Americans north at the rate of hundreds of thousands a year are not diminishing: the economic slowdown that costs jobs in the United States echoes in the south, with even some Mexican border region "maquila" factories cutting their labor forces; the unfulfilled promise of economic stability at the end of the Central American wars of the l980s; and decades of more open migration that means innumerable Mexican and Central American families are now firmly transnational, their undocumented members moving in and out of the United States at risk.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, border enforcement nationwide has been strengthened. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge met April 24 in San Diego with Mexican Interior Minister Santiago Creel to reinforce commitment to a "Smart Border" utilizing "progressive technology." Migrant advocates and repeat undocumented migrants here confirm the crossing is "tighter" than ever. Yet without a new, clear-eyed look at the force and inevitability of migration from the south, more trailer trucks stuffed with dead and dying will certainly be found, and more individual desert and river fatalities will continue to be tabulated in the researchers' border death watch.

Unscrupulous human smugglers cannot take all the blame for the serial tragedy taking place on the U.S. side of the line.

Mary Jo McConahay is a journalist and filmmaker with long experience in the Americas. Reporting was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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