NPR: Deaths Rise Along Mexico-Arizona Border

Aired: September 29, 2007 on Weekend Edition Saturday

SCOTT SIMON, host: For the second year in a row, the number of undocumented immigrants who’ve died along the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped. But in Southern Arizona, the country’s busiest crossing point, deaths are on the rise. More of those dying are women. One (unintelligible) study found that women account for more than 25 percent of those deaths.

Claudine LoMonaco of member station KUAT in Tucson went along recently on one woman’s search for her missing sister.

CLAUDINE LoMONACO: The last time Lydia Cruz (ph) saw her 18-year-old sister, Grecia (ph) Cruz, she dropped her, her brother-in-law, and an uncle off at the Acapulco Airport in Mexico. They were headed to Tijuana with plans to cross the border illegally and join the sisters’ parents in South Carolina.

Ms. LYDIA CRUZ (Resident, Mexico): (Through translator) They had just gotten married and were going to have a baby. She was seven months pregnant when they decided to come. You know, it’s that dream – that life is better here.

LoMONACO: That was more than two months ago, on June 23rd. Within three days, her uncle was dead and her sister disappeared somewhere in the vast expanse of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation in Southern Arizona. Cruz (ph), a 27-year- old teacher, has come here to find them.

She stands on a mountain 10 miles north of the Mexican border with eight volunteers from Humane Borders, a local group that normally puts out water in the desert to aid migrants. They gather around a hand-drawn map from Cruz’s brother-in-law who survived the journey.

Mike Wilson, a Tohono O’odham Indian points out across a sea of mesquite trees and cholla cactus and tries to retrace Grecia’s steps.

Mr. MIKE WILSON (Volunteer, Humane Borders): They came across what you can’t see behind over the little hill is Vamori, the village [Ed: 20 miles south of Sells, AZ; 25 miles WNW of Sasabe, Mexico]. They passed the cemetery. They passed the long bridge, and they came, hopefully, to these mountains. And they spent the night here.

LoMONACO: Cruz’s uncle died that night. The next morning, the smuggler and the rest of the group continued north – Grecia and her husband Guadiz, looking for help.

The group climbs down the mountain to search for the uncle’s body.

Mr. WILSON: Everybody, keep drinking water. Keep your eyes open. Keep your ears open. Keep your nostrils open. Because if you’re smelling for death, it’s a sweet, pungent smell.

LoMONACO: Cruz walks along a sandy wash and drinks from her water bottle to ward off the scorching 101-degree heat. The day her sister crossed, it was 110. Cruz says she had no idea how hot the desert could be or how desolate.

Ms. CRUZ: (Through translator) When I saw what it was like here, I was so sorry I let them come. If I had known what it was like, I never would have let them. Never. At least, I could have warned them.

LoMONACO: The group circles the mountain with no luck. Later in the day, they searched for a shed where Grecia and her husband rested after leaving her uncle. Grecia’s feet were blistered and she couldn’t go on. So her husband left to find help but got lost. After a day and a half, he returned with two border patrol agents, but Grecia was gone. All they found were her socks. They followed her footprints until they disappeared under a tree. Cruz thinks her sister is still alive.

Ms. CRUZ: (Through translator) My aunt talked to a psychic and she told her that she was still alive – that an old couple had picked her up and still had her.

LoMONACO: Mike Wilson and most of the other volunteers don’t have much hope.

Mr. WILSON: But I’m out here against all odds because if it was my daughter, if it was my wife and if it was my baby, I wouldn’t stop. And so you have to do the most you can.

LoMONACO: After several hours, the group finds a rundown hayshed and a woman’s ankle socks.

(Soundbite of touchtone phone)

LoMONACO: Cruz calls her brother-in-law in Mexico in a cell phone to find out if it’s the right place. He confirms the barbed wire coils, the crumbling wooden fence and the sock.

Ms. CRUZ: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. (Spanish spoken)

LoMONACO: It’s big news for Cruz.

Ms. CRUZ: (Through translator) I feel so much better. Now, I’m going to go house to house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LoMONACO: On the way back, Maria Ochoa, another volunteer, calls out to Cruz.

Ms. MARIE OCHOA (Volunteer, Humane Border): (Spanish spoken)

Ms. CRUZ: (Spanish spoken)

LoMONACO: She found a tiny pendant of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the sand. The two women hugged and start to cry.

Ms. OCHOA: (Unintelligible). Let me know that she’s with us. She’ll be helping us.

LoMONACO: For NPR News, I’m Claudine LoMonaco.

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