- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2020

The call came in to San Diego’s 911 center just before 2 p.m. on a Monday in February. It was sunny and nearly 70 degrees in the city — but off to the east, in the Laguna Mountains, there was snow on the ground, sleet was falling and the windchill was in the teens.

Snared in the storm were five undocumented immigrants who had dressed for warmer weather, didn’t bring enough water, and realized the question was no longer whether they could sneak in to the U.S., but rather whether they would survive.

Enter the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) team. Their motto: “So others may live.”

Agent Miguel Angel Pena, a native Spanish speaker, tried to dial back to the phone that called 911, but because of the spotty communications in the mountains, it took about an hour to connect. When they finally did, a man said they were two men and three women, one of whom was barely breathing and another who couldn’t keep up.

Agent Pena coached the man to share his GPS location through WhatsApp on his phone, and the BORSTAR team realized that reaching the group would require at least an hour’s drive and then a 90-minute hike through knee-high snow.

They packed heating packs, water and snacks and headed out, reaching a trail head and then legging it out.

“By the time we were able to get close enough, the five of us were soaked with snow, already starting to feel the effects of cold,” said Agent Kyle Belzer.

They picked up the trail of two people in the snow, then yelled out and heard someone call back. Ten minutes later they found two Mexican brothers, who told them three women were a couple kilometers away. One of the women, they said, was already dead, and the other two were in bad shape.

By the time agents found the women, a second woman looked like she was dead. The agents began CPR anyway.

“We wanted to give an effort,” said Agent James Hiney.

The third woman was still conscious, but she wasn’t even shivering, indicating severe hypothermia. She had on jeans, a T-shirt and light sweatshirt — all soaked through.

The team inquired about the possibility of a life support helicopter, and a supervisor began to make the rounds of local agencies, but told the agents it was unlikely given the weather and the location. The agents put the woman in a thermal guard and huddled around her to try to shield her from the elements, using a mask to try to keep her breathing, trying to buy time for the weather to clear.

They were planning their next steps when, five hours into the rescue, a San Diego County Fire Department helicopter said it would make an attempt.

The chopper dropped a medic off, and they wrapped the woman for transport, but the wind picked up and almost blew the helicopter into a crash, Agent Belzer said. After a couple more attempts the chopper had to wave off.

The agents said they then began to wonder about their own survivability.

“Everybody on the team was hurting. We had guys on the team who couldn’t control their legs,” said Agent Hiney. He said the frostbite was so bad that a month after the rescue he was still having trouble with his feet.

The woman died — agents would later find out the three women were sisters and this wasn’t their first time trying to sneak in.

Both men were saved, though agents said if the men had stayed on the mountain another night they wouldn’t have made it.

According to court documents, agents would later learn that the two men, brothers Cecilio Rios-Quinones and Ricardo Rios-Quinones, were the “coyotes” earning $800 for each migrant they guided into the U.S. illegally.

One brother was teaching the other the route on the day they became stranded.

They worked for a woman known as “Yoli” who ran a smuggling operation out of Tijuana, and a third brother is also involved, according to court documents.

Agents have since arrested three other suspected smugglers tied to the Yoli operation, filling out the government’s case against the two Rios-Quinones brothers.

The brothers are facing charges of smuggling resulting in death.

Agent Hiney said it was the first time he’s ever lost a victim who was alive when he got to them.

And his night wasn’t over. On his way home he stopped for some Gatorade, and another customer, seeing his uniform, took the opportunity to tell him just how bad she thought the Border Patrol was.

“We lost three people, and physically, I was taxed,” he recalled. “That’s just kind of the reality. And it is frustrating to feel that your efforts are being overlooked.”

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