ORGAN PIPE NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz., Aug. 8, 2002 -- The messages that come across the radio at the U.S. Border Patrol base in Douglas, Ariz. can be grim: "Bodies on top of the fence," "Bodies just to the east... at the rose plants."
For years Douglas has been one of the busiest illegal crossing places along the U.S.-Mexico border. But new technology is making it harder for would-be migrants to evade the Border Patrol near towns like Douglas. Instead, more and more migrants are attempting the crossing far out in the Sonoran Desert. There are fewer border agents there, but many more dangers.
One route, 200 miles west of Douglas, is especially dangerous. Known to Mexicans as El Camino del Diablo, or the Devil's Highway, the route is the deadliest migrant trail in North America. More than 1,400 migrants have died along the Devil's Highway in the last five years, from thirst, heat exhaustion and exposure to the elements. This summer so far, more than 80 have died.
One night last summer, ABCNEWS followed a group of migrants as they attempted the dangerous crossing.
Old Wagon Trails Find New Use
Located between Tucson and Yuma in southwestern Arizona, the Devil's Highway is a loose network of old cattle and wagon trails leading from the Mexican border town of Sonoyta through the desert to Ajo, a town 30 miles inside Arizona, and then heading West.
The area is virtually empty of people, but populated by scorpions, rattlesnakes, and cacti that tear at clothes and flesh. The temperature can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.
Sonoyta is a typical border town, filled with thieves, drug smugglers and desperate migrants dreaming of a better life in the United States.
One of the hopeful migrants last summer was Jose Mendoza, a 56-year-old who found that the $5 he was earning making belts was not enough to provide for his wife and six children. In the United States, he could earn 20 times as much.
Mendoza had heard of the dangers of the Devil's Highway, but he was willing to pay $600 to a smuggler who knew the way. "This is my one last shot at providing for my family," he said in Spanish while washing at a broken water line along Sonoyta's river bed.
The smuggler Mendoza hired was known as El Gato, the Cat. At 5:30 one afternoon last August, Mendoza and four others met the Cat in a dry creek bed on the border half a mile east of Sonoyta. They carried plastic bags of food, and a gallon or two of water each. In the desert heat, humans need at least a gallon of water for every six miles they travel. The five men did not have close to that amount.
Walking at Night
Although the busier parts of the U.S.-Mexican border are protected with concrete walls and tower-mounted cameras, out in the desert there is almost nothing. The five men and their guide crossed into the United States through a run-down cattle fence.
As they walked through the desert, the men watched out for Border Patrol vehicles. Twenty minutes into the trip, they noticed a white vehicle in the distance. As the men waited, the Cat climbed a small hill to check it out. It turned out to be a civilian car.
The group continued walking through the desert. Night fell, but the temperature was still close to 100 degrees, the air hot enough to scorch throats.
The Cat frequently told the men to stop and wait, and it was not always clear why. When he told them to take another break, this time a 20-minute rest, there was grumbling. "I don't know why he stops so much," said Gabriel, a 48-year-old from Acapulco. "We have to get where we are going."
Smugglers have been known to abandon their clients in the desert, leaving them to die, and the men had mounting doubts about the Cat, who had brought a bottle of tequila along and appeared to be drunk or confused, or both. "I'm the one who is in charge," he insisted, but he was also the one who was holding up the group's progress.
Signs of Distress
Two hours into the trip, the men knew they had to make a decision: stay with the Cat, or try to make it on their own. They decided to leave their guide, and to try to cover as much ground as they could by moonlight, then stop and wait for dawn. When the sun came up, they would look for telephone lines that would lead them to the nearest town.
As they walked, it was 88 degrees, and cactuses — which are hard to see at night — tore at their clothing and into their flesh. After going through almost all of their water, they stopped at 2 a.m. for some much-needed rest. Mendoza found a space for himself on the rocky desert floor, then spread cloves of garlic around, which he had brought with him. "Snakes don't come around, because of the odor," he said.
When dawn came, the men got moving again. They had 17 miles to go, and were almost out of water. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the temperature approached 120 degrees and the men finished the last of their water.
With just eight miles to go to Ajo, they came across a disturbing sign: a barrel cactus that an earlier crosser had hollowed out by hand and stone for the little water it contained. Further down the road, they saw more signs of crossers who were in trouble: an abandoned bicycle, a pair of worn-out boots, a woman's bra.
Then the men came across a godsend: a water station placed in the desert by church groups hoping to help desert crossers in distress. Refreshed, the group made the final approach to Ajo. Before they reached the town, though, they disbanded, Mendoza and one of the others heading off to find a bus station. Mendoza hoped to reach St. Louis, Mo., where he has a brother; the other man was aiming for Las Vegas. They joined the estimated 4 million other illegal immigrants from Mexico who now call the United States home.
Abandoned in the Desert
Mendoza's group was lucky. The same night, two other groups ran into trouble along the Devil's Highway. Both said they were abandoned by the smugglers who had promised to guide them through the desert.
One of the groups consisted of 25 migrants. After their smuggler deserted them, one of the migrants, worried his 28-year-old sister was in danger of dying from dehydration, flagged down a car on a main road and asked the driver to contact the Border Patrol. Border agents followed the man back to where he had left his sister. She was gone, but they followed her tracks and ended up arresting her and the rest of the group, and sending them back to Mexico on a bus. She was not close to death, but said she would not try the crossing again: "No way, it wasn't worth it."
The other group consisted of a young woman and her 15-year-old brother-in-law, who were left alone in the desert, lost and without water, after they fell behind a smuggler who was leading them and a dozen others. With the woman, Lizbet Hernandez, in an advanced state of heat exhaustion, her brother-in-law made the terrible choice to leave her while he went to find help. He called the Border Patrol from a farm, and a call went out that a young woman was in distress in the desert.
Using night vision scopes, agents on dirt bikes and in a helicopter searched a 10-mile radius around the town of Pisinemo. "Hopefully she is alive and hopefully we'll be able to find her in good condition," said Nestor Ortiz, one of the agents called in for the search.
After an hour news came over the radio that one of the search teams had found a possible clue: "We found a pair of female tennis shoes... tied together... somebody sat down next to them."
Seconds later the search team made a sad discovery a few feet from the shoes. "Gray pants and a tanktop?" asked the agent out in the desert. "Ten-4, that's correct. Gray pants, tanktop," Ortiz confirmed. They had found Hernandez's body: she had finally succumbed to heat exhaustion.
"A lot of times we do find them this way early enough," said Ortiz, "but this time we were a little far behind."
Hernandez died just three miles from the town.