Rogelio Perez Gutierrez probably saw the lights of La Jolla from the boat in the minutes before he and 13 other migrants were ordered to strip off their life jackets, jump into the water and swim for it.
That was as close as he would get.
Many of the migrants struggled in the water. Gutierrez had it the worst. The others recalled to agents that he slipped under the Pacific Ocean surf before they saw his lifeless body floating near the panga boat that was supposed to have brought them to shore.
Gutierrez is another grim statistic of this year’s unprecedented border surge. He was one of 61 people to die trying to sneak into the U.S. in May and one of 383 over the past 10 months. They have drowned, fallen from the border wall, died of exposure, succumbed to illness or, increasingly, been killed in car wrecks when the smugglers careen out of control.
If seasonal patterns hold, the Border Patrol is on pace to challenge 2005 as the worst year in memory for border deaths.
Ronald Vitiello, a former chief of the Border Patrol, said it’s a matter of math: More people are coming, so more are dying.
“It’s all based on the volume,” he said. “We’ve gone to unprecedented heights in attempted entries. There are more people dying on the way, there are more people dying at the border, there’s more risk to the people coming.”
The latest death was announced Saturday.
Agents joined Texas Department of Public Safety troopers in chasing a vehicle carrying illegal immigrants that fled from a traffic stop near Falfurrias. After a 44-mile pursuit and several failed attempts to spike the pickup truck’s tires, agents and troopers deployed deflation devices at the same time, forcing the truck to a stop. Among those inside was a Mexican man, unresponsive, in the back seat.
Agents and troopers performed CPR for 40 minutes until emergency medical services arrived and declared the man dead.
Falfurrias sits in Brooks County, 80 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. Brooks and neighboring Kenedy County account for a staggering number of deaths because of the Border Patrol highway checkpoints and the risks migrants take to avoid them.
In a single week this month, 10 bodies were recovered from the remote ranchlands that surround the checkpoints. Smugglers send migrants on walks around the checkpoints that take days in heat topping 95 degrees.
Heat is also a major killer in the Arizona deserts. Calls for rescue pour in at Border Patrol stations, sometimes from migrants themselves who decide it’s better to give up, get caught and try again. Often, they wait too long.
One recent trend in fatalities is falling from the border wall.
Through July, Border Patrol counted 383 deaths at the border from all causes, outstripping the 253 recorded in all of 2020 or the 300 in 2019.
August and September, the final two months of the fiscal year, usually account for 22% to 30% of the total. If this year is closer to 30%, then 2021 will end with more deaths than the 492 recorded in 2005.
The deaths used to be concentrated in a few of the Border Patrol’s nine sectors. The Tucson, Laredo and Rio Grande sectors accounted for almost all of the tally.
This year, though, the spread of misery has been striking. Every one of the nine sectors has recorded double-digit death tolls. The Del Rio sector, previously in the middle, now tops the list with 71 recorded deaths through July.
Eight of those were from a single-car crash in March. A Dodge Ram pickup carrying illegal immigrants led Texas troopers on a 50-mile chase before veering into oncoming traffic. The Dodge truck collided head-on with a Ford F-150 pickup.
The flip side of deaths is the number of rescues, and 2021 has set a record.
Through July, with two months to go in the fiscal year, agents tallied 10,528 rescues. That was about double the 5,333 recorded in all of 2020.
Most rescues are in the Laredo Sector, though numbers have soared in Del Rio, a little farther up the Rio Grande, as migrants search for new pathways into the U.S.
Agents have ridden to the rescue on horses, as they did to reach a group of eight migrants lost without water near Mexicali. In winter, they make snowstorm treks to pluck migrants off mountaintops.
The Department of Homeland Security is placing more rescue beacons throughout the remote Texas borderlands so migrants who lose cellphones or run out of power along their dangerous treks can summon help.
The Rio Grande Valley sector has 24 beacons but will double that by the end of September.
Mr. Vitiello said the Border Patrol invests tens of millions of dollars into training and technology for its rescue and medical missions.
“No one does more to save lives on the border than the Border Patrol,” he said.
Praise for agents isn’t universal, though.
No More Deaths and Derechos Humanos, Arizona-based organizations, released a report in February arguing that the Border Patrol “systematically ignores and mishandles” searches and rescues.
The report, titled “Left to Die,” said the Border Patrol didn’t appear to try in more than 60% of cases in which a family or advocacy group forwarded a distress call to agents. At times when agents did initiate a search, the organizations said, they made less of an attempt than they would have for a U.S. citizen.
“This failure rate — when compared with the near 100% success rate of county-led search and rescues in the same or similar remote borderland corridors — is a clear indication of systemic and deadly discrimination,” the groups concluded.
The groups figure that the actual numbers of deaths and disappearances are three to 10 times what the Border Patrol records.
Immigrant rights activists say the focus on border security deserves blame for many of the deaths.
As the country got more serious about blocking the U.S.-Mexico boundary in the late years of the Clinton administration and early years of the Bush administration, migrants began to take more remote and dangerous paths, particularly through Arizona’s deserts.
The push for more border security under President Trump again forced smugglers to find new methods.
They are increasingly hopping rail cars in Texas or taking to the waters off Texas and California. Homeland Security said agents found a smuggling boat abandoned after a successful run to the beach in Malibu, some 150 miles up the coast from the maritime boundary, and even tracked the first-ever smuggler landing on Catalina Island.
Gutierrez, the man who drowned in May, never got that far.
According to court documents, the two smugglers overloaded the boat, causing the engine to stall in open water and marooning them overnight without enough food or water.
The smugglers got the boat moving in the morning, made it within 80 yards of La Jolla and told the migrants to ditch their life jackets and swim. They promised the water was shallow.
According to their plea agreement, the smugglers didn’t bother to find out whether any of the migrants could swim before sending them over the side of the boat.
San Diego lifeguards plucked most of the migrants from the water. A few made it to the beach on their own and were nabbed by Border Patrol agents. The migrants had paid $12,000 to $15,000 for their chance to make it to the U.S.
The two smugglers pleaded guilty this month.
Smugglers are just as callous rafting across the Rio Grande in Texas or crossing the deserts in Arizona, where foot guides leave behind migrants who get sick and can’t keep up.
“Too many of them, it’s a commodity,” Mr. Vitiello said. “The more people you go, the faster you go, the less care and attention you pay to people that get sick along the way.”
One former Border Patrol agent said it’s also a matter of economics. Unlike drugs, where the product has to be sold before the smugglers can realize a profit, migrants usually pay at least some of their money upfront. Even if they still owe a couple of thousand dollars toward the end, the smugglers have already made thousands of dollars per person. The smugglers don’t take as much of a hit by cutting them loose as they would by abandoning a drug load.