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Soaring Temperatures Threaten Migrants In The Desert

Luis Otero
Michel Marizco
Luis Otero was rescued in the Arizona desert by Border Patrol.

Audio Clip

Death In The Desert

Death In The Desert

Near SELLS, Ariz. — As temperatures approach 120 degrees in the Arizona desert this week, immigrants crossing the border illegally are finding themselves in trouble.

U.S. Border Patrol trauma agents already rescued hundreds of people in the weeks before the first day of summer. And now they anticipate more. 

Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue Agent Gerry Carrasco and his partner scan the radio traffic.

It’s hot. The sun is a melting yellow orb rising over the jagged stone peaks of the Baboquivari Mountains in southern Arizona. Mexico is 40 miles away. Anybody who has made it this far has been walking for two or three days in the desert.

A man called 911 at dawn. A smuggler left him to die when he couldn’t keep up.

Carrasco is waiting for a second team of agents who are out tracking the man. The second team radios in. They found someone, but Carrasco’s not sure if it’s the person who called 911 or yet another migrant in need of help.

"I'd say he's 15, 18 miles from South Mountain," his partner said, looking at a map. 

"That’s a long way," Carrasco said.

"It is. Hopefully once they get confirmation they can determine if it’s the same guy."

So far this year, nearly 100 people have been found dead in Arizona’s deserts. Those are only the bodies that have been found — it’s not known how many actually died.

University of Arizona researchers have been looking at the data from the last 12 years. They found that more bodies were discovered even as apprehensions dropped.

On a day like today, with the sun now burning overhead, the human body dries out quickly and core temperatures start to rise.

Michel Marizco

Luis Otero was rescued in the Arizona desert by Border Patrol.

"If you’re hovering above 100 degrees, once those cooling mechanisms stop you’re gonna be up in the 106s 107s, at that point you’re actually killing tissue, cells are dying. And it just starts snowballing from there," Carrasco said.

The radio blasts again. The second team has found the man. Carrasco drives his SUV to a spot just off Arizona Highway 86. The second team’s German Shepherd barks nearby.

Luis Otero tells a story that's all too common in the desert. He paid a smuggler to bring him from Mexico to Tucson for a job. He injured himself. The smuggler left him behind. His face is flushed and he’s breathing hard. He walked three days.

The agents found him because they got a tip that he was wearing a distinctive pair of Nike shoes.

"I started following those shoe prints and they were circling around trees and looking for shelter and I came up on the guy with the Nike shock. Just basically tracking him out toward that tree," said the agent who tracked Otero down.

With highway traffic roaring behind him, the agent gives Otero a bottle of water. Then a second. Then a third. He gasps as he drinks it.

Agents have rescued nearly 200 people in the past month alone. Most of the calls for help came from immigrants dialing 911, just like Otero. Carrasco said he doesn’t know how many people are not found. Nobody does.

"You’re just there to do as much as you can and if I can go home at the end of the day knowing that I did everything that I could," Carrasco said. "I don’t say that I get jaded, but you learn how to handle it. And you learn how to cope with it. You have to learn how to cope with it. Or else you go crazy. You won’t be able to last very long."

The agents put Otero in the back of the truck. He’ll be processed and then deported. As they head back to Tucson, the radio chatter keeps coming in. There are more migrants roaming the desert in panic. It’s 4 p.m. And 103 degrees.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.