- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2001

The head of the U.S. Border Patrol and Mexico´s deputy director of protection and consular affairs have agreed to new measures to enhance the lifesaving capabilities of both countries along Arizona´s 350-mile international border.

Pledging to do everything possible to reduce migrant deaths and injuries, Border Patrol chief Gustavo De La Vina and Mexican Deputy Director Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez said the new agreement would include the deployment of additional resources to high-risk areas and will involve closer collaboration on mapping and electronic communications.

The pact, mapped out during a meeting last week in Tucson, Ariz., involving 30 representatives of both countries, will include additional binational search-and-rescue training.

"These binational meetings are a crucial part of the border safety effort," said Mr. De La Vina. "They give us an opportunity to share ideas that will help both countries better address this challenge."

"Both countries are committed to working to promote safe, legal, humane and orderly migration," said Mr. Rodriguez Hernandez.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who attended joint U.S.-Mexico meetings on the agreement last month, said he was "fully committed to a safe and orderly border for residents, visitors and migrants." The Border Patrol, part of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, is overseen by the Justice Department.

The agreement comes in the wake of the deaths of 14 Mexican nationals whose bodies were found last month in the scorching Arizona desert east of Yuma. They were among a group of 26 who attempted to cross 70 miles of desert in temperatures that reached 115 degrees.

Border Patrol authorities said the group had spent five days wandering the desert after several suspected alien smugglers told them they were leaving for water but never returned.

Under the new agreement, the Border Patrol has assigned three additional helicopters and three pilots to the Tucson sector to expand the area´s fleet to 12 aircraft, including 10 helicopters.

Mr. De La Vina said the helicopters are valuable because they can take off and land in rugged terrain, "making them an important tool not only for surveillance but also for rescues."

In addition, he said, one of the helicopters in Tucson is equipped with infrared technology, enabling the Border Patrol to carry out nighttime search and rescue operations.

The Border Patrol and Mexican authorities also agreed on the need for additional training to enhance the effectiveness of future joint rescue efforts. Mr. De La Vina said the training will focus on skills ranging from mountain rescues to water survival.

Much of the training will be overseen by members of the Border Patrol´s Search and Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) team. Given the resources of the teams in Tucson and San Diego, Mr. De La Vina said the BORSTAR program is being expanded to four other southern border sectors — including Yuma and El Centro, Calif.

Eventually, he said, 50 Border Patrol agents from across the Southwest will take part in search and rescue training sessions in Southern California.

He said the agents will then return to their sectors to help establish local search-and-rescue programs.

Meanwhile, Mr. De La Vina said 23 members of the Tucson Border Patrol´s BORSTAR team have been reassigned to the sector´s Tucson main station a move that he said will enable team members to respond more quickly to any emergencies that arise in the Western desert.

He said that as a further safety measure, the Tucson sector has also temporarily been transferred an additional 30 Border Patrol agents from Nogales, Ariz., and Douglas, Ariz., to the Western desert.

Under the agreement, the Border Patrol also has:

• Sent five new all-terrain vehicles to its station in Ajo, Ariz., along with two infrared night-vision devices that Mr. De La Vina described as "vital in the effort to locate and rescue migrants who may be in distress."

• Assigned 63 Border Patrol officers now at the academy to the Tucson sector, a third of whom will be sent to stations responsible for patrolling the Western desert.

• Committed to work more closely with Mexican authorities on future public information campaigns to improve the effectiveness of outreach efforts aimed at making the danger of illegal border crossings more apparent.

The Border Patrol and Mexican authorities said in a joint statement after the Tucson meeting they would share information on suspected alien smugglers and work jointly to ensure that smugglers interdicted in the high-risk Western desert area "are subject to the highest scrutiny for possible prosecution."

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