Border Patrol agents in two separate sectors along the southwest border with Mexico recalled the tragic details of rescue attempts where migrants died. Both stories detail the anguish felt by the agents who, despite their own efforts and putting their own lives at risk, were unable to save the lives of these migrants.
In February 2020, San Diego Sector Border Patrol agents received information about a group of migrants who became stranded in the mountains during a severe winter storm. The group of five migrants called 911 and said they were lost and falling prey to the elements, according to a video tweeted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.
“We gave it hell. We were so close.”@CBPSanDiego BORSTAR agents share their despair at not being able to save three sisters from a 2020 snowstorm after they had been abandoned by their human smugglers. pic.twitter.com/MxwyrkSZXa
— CBP (@CBP) May 13, 2021
In the video, four Border Patrol agents recall the events that left three sisters dead and the injuries they sustained while trying to save the women.
The incident began at about 2 p.m. in the Cleveland National Forrest located in the mountains east of San Diego.
“The conditions were so horrible, we requested air support but all air support was declined at the time,” one of the agents recalled. “So we knew what we were getting ourselves into.”
The agent said they encountered knee-deep snow and strong winds during the march into the rescue area. By the time they arrived, they found one of the females unconscious and the others struggling to survive in the bitter cold. A second female migrant showed no obvious signs of life while a third slid down a bush with her eyes open and made noises.
Due to the steep terrain and freezing conditions, the agents were unable to carry the women down the mountainside. Agents called for air support again and a helicopter finally arrived on scene. The aircrew was unable to help because of the dangerous wind gusts, the agents said.
“I’m sorry, team. We’re not going to be able to do this,” the pilot told the BORSTAR agents on the ground.
The agents also began experiencing signs of hypothermia due to the severe conditions on the mountain. The final migrant passed away about 30 minutes later, an agent said.
“The look in her eyes… I see it when I look at my wife and my daughter,” he expressed. “It’s hard.”
The agents experienced life-threatening effects from the storm. “We were all numb from the waist down,” one agent stated. “I couldn’t sleep that night because my feet were in so much pain.” He said he suffered symptoms of frostbite.
The agents said they found IDs on the women before they left the scene. They later learned the three females were sisters. “Somebody lost pretty much their whole family…”
The agents warned others of the dangers of turning their lives and their safety over to human smugglers who will leave them behind to die if something goes wrong.
Border Patrol agents found the smugglers who led the three sisters to their death. Federal prosecutors filed charges and a court sentenced them to 5.5 years on prison, officials stated.
Sunday, May 23, marks the 20th anniversary of one of the worst human smuggling tragedies in the Yuma Border Patrol Sector, CBP officials said in a written statement. In this incident, 14 migrants died to heat-related illnesses in the scorching heat of the desert located southeast of Yuma, Arizona.
Yuma Sector officials wrote:
That day started out as a typical one for David Phagan, who was a Border Patrol agent at the Wellton station at the time. But that day quickly turned from typical to tragic. And 20 years later, it’s still ingrained in Phagan’s memory.
As Phagan, now a supervisory Border Patrol agent assigned to the Wellton Station, headed out to the field that morning, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the death and suffering he was about to encounter. But a few hours into his shift, an agent’s worst nightmare became a reality as he came upon a group of four desperate men. The four had been part of a larger group of 28 males who crossed the border from Mexico into the United States and entered an unexpectedly hot, barren and disorienting landscape. The group, which included two guides, stepped into the desert on May 19. Two of them decided to return to Mexico, but the other 24 continued, following their guides through a terrain that would end up swallowing them whole.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how hard and unforgiving this desert is,” Phagan said as he stood in the same spot along a dirt road 30 miles south of Dateland, Arizona, where he encountered the four men two decades ago.
They had been sitting in the shade of a tree near the road waiting and hoping for someone to come along. When they saw Phagan approach in his Border Patrol truck, they ran toward him.
“When they got to me, they were begging for water,” he said. “I tried to cool them off by pouring water on them. They were in bad shape.”
The men told Phagan that there were several more of them in worse condition and most likely dead. With that news, an intense rescue operation was initiated. And when it was all said and done, two days later, a total of 14 migrants were dead, including one of the suspected guides.
“This is a life-or-death situation, especially in the summer,” Phagan said. “If you miss sign, someone could die. People’s lives are in your hands.”
Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeffrey Townzen had only 11 months in the patrol and six months in the field when he became part of the rescue operation that day.
“It was an eye opener,” he said. “The ones that were still alive, you could see it in their eyes that you were saving their lives. The ones you saved are the ones you remember. That was something I won’t forget.”
Chris Coleman, now a Wellton station supervisor, was working the swing shift at the time of the rescue and spent the night backtracking the sign of a brother from the initial group of four that Phagan encountered.
“We backtracked his sign all night long and found him dead under a tree at about 1 a.m.,” he said. “That first day I remember. I remember pushing the sign. It was hard to push because the guy was all over the place. He put his shoes on the ground and folded up all his clothes with his wallet on top.
“Those were the longest [couple days] of my career,” Coleman said.
Coleman and Townzen both said the incident had a big impact on the Wellton station, not only among the agents who were involved in the rescue, but also on station operations.
“It really affected the Wellton station and how big the station grew,” Townzen said.
In addition to adding manpower, Townzen said the station also added a forward operating camp, called Camp Grip, south of the area where the migrants died, and several rescue beacons were placed throughout the desert.
“It changed the way we did everything,” Coleman added.
While this happened 20 years ago, officials said these conditions and the actions by human smugglers connected to transnational criminal organizations are regular occurrences today.
“Smugglers and guides regularly risk the lives of the migrants who pay them thousands of dollars for help to get into the United States,” Yuma Sector officials said. “Smugglers and guides are known to abandon their groups whenever they run into an obstacle, such as a migrant getting injured or sick or detection by a Border Patrol agent. Those who can’t keep up are left behind, which seemed to be the case with this group.”
Officials said one of the “guides” also died after abandoning the migrant group. The other, Jesus Lopez-Ramos, was arrested, tried, and convicted for the deaths of the 14 migrants. The court sentenced him to 16 years in federal prison.
“The thing that gets me is you still see it every day,” Coleman, a 21-year veteran of the Border Patrol, said in the written statement. “The smugglers, they don’t care.”
Border Patrol agents rescued more than 5,600 migrants so far this fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2020. This compares to 5,071 the previous year and 4,920 during Fiscal Year 19.