Friday, June 21, 2013



Border Patrol exercise shows perils of crossing
June 20, 2013 11:08 PM
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For drug smugglers and illegal immigrants traversing the wilderness around Yuma during the summer months, "the desert is a dangerous place," said Tyler Emblem, Senior Patrol Agent with the Yuma Sector Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR) team.

"The trouble begins when people cross the border here. There are a lot of things that can go wrong."

The first issue for illegal border crossers is getting enough water to drink to stave off dehydration, which can be deadly in the scorching heat, especially since there are no natural sources of water readily available in the desert.

"You can run out of water, and the water you do have when you cross soon becomes as hot as the air around you – in excess of 100 degrees."

Most illegal border crossers cannot physically carry the water they need to survive over the course of the several days it takes to reach their northerly destinations. Some illegal immigrants have even been known to become desperate enough to drink their own urine before being rescued – if they are rescued in time.

Another problem is losing their way in the vast wide open desert, or being left behind by the coyotes guiding the way.

"You can get blisters," Emblem said. "When you get blisters you don't want to walk and can be left behind. The guides leave them for fear of being caught. They get stranded. They get lost. It is unlikely that someone is going to carry their loved one or their buddy out of the desert when they become incapacitated."

At this point, the stranded persons know their only chance of survival is to be rescued. But communications may not be at hand.

"If you have a cell phone and call for help, you have to have a signal," Emblem noted. "You have to hope your battery doesn't go dead. Some people attempt to make signal fires, but it is hard to start fires in the desert because there is not a lot of brush out there to begin with."

Any one of these issues "can lead to disaster for anyone attempting to cross the border here," Emblem continued. "Although the Border Patrol does have well trained people to carry out rescue missions and render aid to those in distress – it is a very, very big desert. Prevention is without a doubt the best medicine."

To help persuade illegal border crossers not to attempt the treacherous journey in the first place, the Border Patrol is publicizing their Border Safety Initiative, a binational effort with Mexico to reduce border deaths and injuries along the international border.

As part of the initiative, Yuma Sector agents are focused on raising awareness among migrants about the realities they may face including harsh environmental conditions, deadly temperatures, abuse by smugglers and the potential penalties of being apprehended by the Border Patrol.

Part of the responsibility of Border Patrol agents "is to bring the problem to the people who may be contemplating crossing the border illegally," explained Mario Villarreal, Yuma Sector Division Chief for Operations.

"Certainly this time of the year it is absolutely not the time to try to cross into the United States. The temperatures are extreme. It is extremely dangerous, and it is not worth your life to try and cross illegally into the United States. Individuals who cross cannot carry enough water to walk five days."

While prevention is the key, there will still be drug smugglers and illegal immigrants brazen enough to attempt the arduous journey – some of whom will face life threatening situations.

As of May 31, 2013, there have been 12 people rescued from the desert by Yuma Sector agents. Six others were not located and died in the wilderness. There were also 3,380 illegal border-crossers detained.

Those numbers have fallen drastically since the peak year of 2005 when there were 486 people rescued, 53 deaths, and 140,525 detained.

Yuma Sector agents "have done a great job in restoring this piece of the country to an area that is one of the securest in the nation," Villarreal said.

"As a result, the people that are crossing illegally into the area, the number has reduced – thus the reduction in rescues and migrant deaths. They go hand-in-hand."

But BORSTAR is ready for those who still come and find themselves stranded.

There are several ways the team becomes aware of those in the desert who need help. The first is through a series of 24 Rescue Beacons strewn throughout the sector. Each beacon continuously flashes lights and has a large push button and sensor activation which connects via radio to Border Patrol dispatch. An agent is then sent to the activated beacon within an hour.

Other ways of finding those in distress is through emergency 911 calls, or by tracking footprints. Some agents are able to determine if a person is injured just by examining the tracks they leave behind.

Regardless of how they become aware of an individual or group in distress, once BORSTAR learns of a potentially life threatening situation, they immediately respond if available.

On Thursday morning, BORSTAR agents invited Yuma-area media outlets and dignitaries to a special rescue exercise. It began with a long drive several miles southeast onto the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range, a popular corridor for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

After the city of Yuma had almost vanished over the horizon, two agents received a simulated report of a person in distress who had called 911, and searched the area. They found a disturbance next to a dirt road indicating someone had passed through the area, and called in a BORSTAR K9 unit because they would not be able to easily follow the tracks in the rocky terrain of the Gila Mountains.

Once on scene, the working dog picked up the scent of the person who had passed by, and directed the handler and the two agents through the open desert, across a wash and up the side of a mountain to a man portraying a stranded illegal immigrant.

Once the discovery was made, a BORSTAR medical unit was dispatched to render emergency services to the man.

Upon arrival, the BORSTAR paramedics immediately began attempts to cool the man's core temperature and to rehydrate him with an intravenous drip. He was then loaded into a litter basket and carried to a waiting Hummer to be transported to an area off the bombing range to be picked up by a medical helicopter. Non-military aircraft are generally not allowed in military airspace if training is being conducted, as it was Wednesday.

Once in an area just northeast of the bombing range, a Tri-State helicopter landed and whisked the man away to safety.

This was all just another day at the office for the agents, even though they had spent hours outside traversing treacherous terrain in triple-digit temperatures.

The exercise "shows what Border Patrol agents deal with daily, and certainly what we deal with more often than not," Emblem said.

"The Yuma desert is pretty wide open and pretty desolate and without a doubt is remote. It takes hours to even just get to the area where we are going to affect our rescue. It adds up. The more time you spend in the heat, the more of a toll it is going to take on you. A lot of body functions rely on proper hydration, and when you are battling that every minute you are outside, it is certainly taxing. It doesn't let up."

Despite the constant battle with the environment, the BORSTAR team and the other agents in the Yuma Sector have the training, commitment and expertise to succeed where others would fail, especially when lives are on the line, Emblem concluded.

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