Three Days Stranded: How Border Patrol Failed to Rescue A Lost Migrant In The Desert
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Editor’s Note: In December 2022, Futuro Investigates published “Death by Policy: Crisis in the Arizona Desert,” a multi-media report that explored the crisis of death and disappearances in the Sonoran Desert. Our reporting dug into how Border Patrol’s policies funnel people crossing the southern border into the most extreme geographic conditions. As the agency’s budget continues to rise, and millions of dollars annually are set aside to fund BORSTAR, Border Patrol’s search and rescue unit, we spoke with a myriad of local volunteer organizations working to fill in the gaps where they say the agency, and the U.S. government, continue to fail to protect people in vulnerable conditions. Two months after our reporting aired, Futuro Investigates was contacted by an organization that claimed to have witnessed BORSTAR fail to rescue an at-risk migrant calling for help for three days. We spoke to the man at the center of the story, filed requests with emergency services to verify the veracity of those claims, and reviewed the data collected by the organization.
When Martín finally reached the snowy summit of one of the Baboquivari Mountains in Arizona last month, he could barely walk. He dropped to his knees on the frozen ground and tried to catch his breath. Each inhale filled his lungs with more of the blistering cold air he’d been experiencing for the last four days as he crossed the Sonoran Desert from Mexico into southern Arizona on foot. He was dehydrated and exhausted. His socks, soaked and hardened from trudging through the sludge, had led to painful blisters and injuries on his feet. Martin is not his real name, but we are using it as a way to protect his identity.
Winter in these desert mountains, about 50 miles south of Tucson, can be as brutal as summer –in the complete opposite way. And this day, February 16th, was particularly frigid, with temperatures dipping under 15 F.
Martín is 23 years old and originally from Guatemala. He had been traveling from Mexico with a guide and a small group of five men, hoping to reach Phoenix. From there, he planned to meet with relatives living out of state who would take him in.
The group he was crossing with was originally told they’d walk for eight hours and then be picked up by a car, he said. It never happened. Instead, it had been days of this: walking night and day with barely any rest in the blistering cold. When they reached the top of the mountain that day in February, Martín told the guide he was suffering from chest pains. He needed a few minutes to rest. The guide told him they would continue walking and that Martín should rest briefly and catch up with them. When Martín went to look for them, they were gone.
At that point, Martín said he had no idea which way he’d come from or which way to continue. He said he kept thinking about two people the group had come across earlier– a man and a woman frozen at the bottom of an embankment– who appeared to have died hugging. Martín said he began to fear he would also die on the mountain.
Then he remembered a 911 distress sign he saw a few days prior. Luckily, Martín had brought an external battery pack. His cell phone had a few bars of signal, so he called 911. Martín remembers himself telling the operator that he needed to be rescued, that he was lost, alone, and feared he would die on the mountain. He said the operator assured him that the U.S. Border Patrol would rescue him.
As the sun set and the temperatures dropped, Martín said he lay in a fetal position on the ground, clutching the only items he carried–a gallon of water, a dry pack of ramen noodles, and a black trash bag. He wrapped the bag around his torso for warmth. At night he said he desperately tried to control his shivering body, laying very still as coyotes and other wild animals roamed around him.
He waited for the Border Patrol to arrive. He waited for three days.
But the Border Patrol’s rescue team, BORSTAR, did not rescue him.
Local volunteers take matters into their own hands
Martín said he is alive today because of a local Arizona humanitarian organization, Frontera Aid Collective (FAC). His family contacted them the same day he called 911, after learning he was stranded. The volunteers at FAC say they also initiated numerous rescue calls on his behalf to the local sheriff, Border Patrol, and emergency services.
On March 20th, members of FAC published an open letter to Border Patrol on their Facebook account, outlining the details of Martín’s rescue and criticizing what they describe as the agency’s failure to protect lives, despite a multi-million dollar budget dog-eared for rescue efforts. FAC said the letter was also sent directly to Border Patrol and Arizona Senator Mark Kelly’s office.
Futuro Investigates received a copy of the letter before publishing. It details three days of communication with the agency. It alleges that agents told FAC volunteers that a rescue was underway and that, despite Border Patrol having Martín’s GPS coordinates, access to direct communication via his cell phone, and BORSTAR helicopters flying over him on two occasions, Martín was left to wait for days without shelter in dangerously cold weather.
The volunteer organization also alleges that the agency’s protocols, which require that emergency calls involving people believed to be migrants be routed to them, create a dangerous situation by blocking the ability of other trained rescue groups -like the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, which regularly responds to distress calls from tourists or locals-to step in and complete the rescue in a timely manner.
FAC points out they also contacted other volunteer search and rescue groups who were willing to go search for the injured man, and allege that the Border Patrol dissuaded them –
“… each called BP and were told that BORSTAR was on the scene with helicopters and dirtbikes, and so each declined to join the search, thinking an effective operation was already well underway. Had we believed BP as these other groups had and not begun looking for Martín, there is every reason to believe that Martín would not have survived.”
The letter also alleges that Martín himself called 911 eleven times. Each time he was routed to Border Patrol and was told to remain in place. Martín confirmed this in our interview.
We put in an open records request with the Pima County Sheriff for all emergency phone calls received during that time period. The request was still being processed at the time of publishing this story.
Finally, near the end of the third day, members of FAC say they decided to go up the mountain themselves. Martín said he was so weak by then that volunteers had to physically carry him down to safety.
Martín said that when they reached the bottom of the mountain, a Border Patrol agent who had been waiting in his vehicle took him into custody after a brief “medical screening” by the truck. Agents told him they determined he did not need medical care. Within eight days, he was deported back to Guatemala.
FAC concludes the letter by saying they believe “that Border Patrol deliberately left this man out to die, and…that if we had not responded to their inaction he very likely would have died.”
We reached out to Border Patrol for comment but did not receive a response.
Border Patrol releases new data on border rescues and mortality
Martín said he is happy to be alive, and he was lucky he had an extra battery pack that allowed him to maintain communication for days despite being stranded in a remote location. He said he doesn’t know what would have happened if he had kept waiting on the mountain, and he still doesn’t understand why Border Patrol waited so long to rescue him.
It’s hard to know the answer to this question. The agency does not release data on how it handles rescues, how many distress calls they receive compared to how many they respond to, or how decisions of when to deploy BORSTAR are made.
In their letter, however, FAC cites data compiled and published by the local organization No More Deaths in the 2019 report “Left to Die,” which alleges that more than half of all distress calls led to no search efforts whatsoever.
Last month, in response to a record request filed by Futuro Investigates last year, the agency replied with a link to new data published on its website. The data gives insight into the number of rescues conducted by the unit, including a breakdown of deaths recorded, for fiscal years 2017 to 2021. Numbers for 2022 have not yet been made public.
The new data reveals a sharp increase in deaths. While 254 deaths were reported in the southwest region in 2020, Border Patrol tallied 568 deaths in the fiscal year 2021. This is twice the number of deaths recorded the year prior in the same region, and the largest number of deaths recorded to date. The 334 people who died were of Mexican origin.
Border Patrol also released the number of rescues the agency conducted in each patrol sector. The Sonoran Desert, where Martín was stranded, is part of the Tucson sector, which covers most of the State of Arizona from the New Mexico State line to the Yuma County line in Arizona. It is widely considered one of the deadliest regions in the country, with hundreds of reported annual deaths.
Border Patrol reported conducting just 164 rescue incidents in this area in 2021. (A rescue “incident” could include more than one person being rescued at the same time.) That makes the Tucson sector the region with the second lowest number of rescues out of all of the agency’s patrol sectors. Tucson is also the only sector to see a decrease in rescues by Border Patrol in 2021. All other sectors on the southwest border had more rescues in 2021 than the year prior.
This data does not answer an important question raised by the FAC letter and our prior reporting – that is whether the agency initiates a rescue effort for every call they receive. Because Border Patrol does not release the number of calls for rescues it received, only how many rescues it actually conducted, there is not enough information to evaluate the success of the agency’s rescue initiative.
To address this “lack of accountability,” FAC’s letter closes with a list of demands. They include that BORSTAR responds to every request for rescue, reports the resolution of every call for transparency, allows county-led search and rescue groups to step in to calls for rescue in places where BORSTAR can’t or won’t respond so that rescues can be conducted quickly, and that people who are rescued receive proper medical assistance in their language.
Back to square one
Martín, the 23 year old man who spent days stranded on a mountain in the Sonoran Desert, is back home in Guatemala. His feet have finally healed, and he returned to long days of working in the fields.
But, while he is glad to be alive, he said his family is worse off now than when he set out to try and make it to the United States. The guide to cross the desert charged his family $85,000 Quetzales — that’s a little over $10,000 US dollars. An unspeakable sum in his financial condition. Martín said his family had feared he would die in the desert if he attempted to cross without a guide, so they did what so many others have done. They turned to a prestamista, a “loan shark” of sorts, who lent them the money to pay for the guide. He gave them eight months to pay the sum back in full.
In order to get the loan, his brother-in-law put up his family’s only possession, the deed to his farm and the land they depend on to survive.
Martín said he feels guilty, often he stays up at night worrying. He hopes he never has to try and make the journey north again, but right now, he doesn’t know how to help his family.
As for FAC, they say their only goal is to save lives. A goal “which [they] think should be shared by BORSTAR.”
The work of Futuro Investigates is made possible by The W.K.Kellogg Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Tow Foundation, The Geraldine H. Dodge Foundation, Michelle Mercer and Bruce Golden, and Hispanics in Philanthropy.
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