Drownings Spike along Rio Grande amid Border Crackdown

The Rio Grande is the natural frontier that separates the United States from Mexico.
The Rio Grande is the natural frontier that separates the United States from Mexico. (Chacatorex)

EspañolUS Border Patrol has reported that the number of drownings in the Rio Grande — which separates Texas and four Mexican states — has grown dramatically in the last six months, as increased patrols force Mexican and Central American migrants to resort to dangerous methods to cross the border.

Raul L. Ortiz, deputy chief of Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas, told Associated Press that migrants were attempting to cross at new points in the river, leading to a spike in deaths in the river since October 2014.

Drownings Increase

AP reported on Sunday, March 29, that at least 16 would-be migrants have drowned in under six months. This figure represents only five fewer than the total of those drowned between October 2013 and September 2014.

“It used to be one a month … now it’s one a week,” Mission, Texas Fire Chief René López Jr. said.

The majority of bodies are found by fire service divers just to the southeast of Mission. In January and February 2015 alone, they recovered at least six bodies in the muddy channels of the river.

Border Patrol has responded by expanding search-and-rescue teams to patrol the area, in particular the irrigation channels covered by weeds where many of the bodies are found.

In August 2014, the United States increased patrols in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border.
In August 2014, the United States increased patrols in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the border. (Periódicoenlace)

Capt. Joel Domínguez, a member of a rescue team based in the area, told AP that the many swimmers were caught in currents or the invasive water weed hydrilla.

“They get tied down and it’s hard to get away from that in black water. And they are often panicking, running from agents,” he said.

Some channels of the Rio Grande are up to 15 meters wide and clogged with weeds. Although their waters can appear calm, underlying currents often prove treacherous.

Border Patrol has transferred a dedicated rescue unit from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley trained in swift-water rescues, diving, tracking, and emergency medical care. The unit’s arrival brings the total number of agents dedicated to lifesaving activities to 30.

However, Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Texas at Austin sociology professor, said drownings by their nature were harder to prevent than “slow dying in the desert or in the prairies of South Texas.”

“A drowning happens in a minute or two, and it’s much more difficult to save someone,” Rodriguez said.

Migration on the Rise

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 307 people died in 2014 trying to cross the land border between Mexico and the United States, making it the third most lethal transit point for migrants in the world.

In August 2014, the United States reinforced security in the Rio Grande Valley sector, with river launches supporting federal efforts to disrupt the flow of illicit drugs and undocumented migrants.

According to a February 2015 report by the Survey of Migration at the North Border of Mexico (EMIF), the percentage of Mexicans who migrated legally and illegally to the United States has increased markedly since 2012.

“The EMIF estimates that 322,000 Mexicans crossed the north border of the country to the United States in 2013, an increase of 17 percent with regard to 2012 estimates,” the report states.

Thirty-seven percent of Mexican migrants in 2013 settled in in California, and 22 percent lived in Texas.

In the same year, Mexican migrants represented over half of the immigrant population of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Idaho, and Oklahoma, while individuals born in Mexico represented 2 percent or less of the migrant population in Rhode Island, Maine, Hawaii, and Massachusetts.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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