The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office received multiple distress calls last weekend from undocumented migrants who became lost in the desert under treacherous weather conditions, plus another report of a hiker who went missing in Madera Canyon.
And while deputies and their law enforcement partners were able to locate and rescue two groups of dehydrated migrants, they also recovered the body of a young man who died on the side of the road in Kino Springs, as well as skeletal remains just north of Nogales city limits. In two cases, including the one involving the hiker, searchers didn’t find the person they were looking for, and two of the rescued migrants had to be hospitalized.
The incidents came as temperatures soared over the 100-degree mark, and Sgt. Santiago Gonzales of the Sheriff’s Office said the weather was “absolutely, 100-percent” a factor in the spike in 911 calls from the desert.
“That’s a major factor – the elements and then the lack of water and the terrain. It’s definitely harsh conditions out there,” he said.
The first call came in shortly before 9:30 a.m. last Friday, from a 34-year-old man who said he was from the state of Puebla in southern Mexico and was making his second crossing into the United States. The man said he was traveling alone, dressed in camouflage and had been walking for eight hours.
According to the dispatch log of the call, the man said he had no food or water and was “unabe to see anything.”
Gonzales said the man couldn’t describe any landmarks that would have helped authorities pin down his location, and disptach couldn’t obtain his GPS coordinates, either. That led to what he called a “very broad search” that ended without a rescue.
“We searched several areas, alongside with Border Patrol, and that search went on through basically the entire day,” he said. “We had air support, we had personnel on the ground, Border Patrol had ATVs on the ground, and just nothing came out of it.”
Then at 7:15 p.m. on Friday, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department relayed a call from someone who said his friend, a 45-year-old man, had gone missing while the two were hiking in Madera Canyon. That search continued throughout the weekend with assistance from the Border Patrol and the Department of Public Safety, among others, before it was called off effective Monday.
“We really don’t know what we have right now and we don’t want to speculate on any one thing,” Sheriff Antonio Estrada told the Green Valley News on Monday, adding that there were no further plans to look for the man in the canyon.
Shortly before 9:30 p.m. on Friday, sheriff’s dispatch received a call from a member of a group of six migrants who had crossed from Mexico. The caller said they had been walking for six days and were out of water.
This time, the caller was able to provide GPS coordinates that plotted to a nine-meter radius east of Tubac. With that information, sheriff’s deputies and Border Patrol agents were quickly able to locate the group, even in the darkness of night, Gonzales said.
“Those ones are the good ones,” he said of calls that include precise locations. “Nine meters, I mean, they can hear us when we’re nine meters away.”
The migrants were found in a wash between a couple of ravines, he said, and all six were suffering from some degree of dehydration. One male member of the group was sick enough that he needed to be transported to the hospital.
That same night, Border Patrol agents were tracking a group of border-crossers through the Kino Springs area and apprehended five or six people, Gonzales said. The detainees said another member of the group had been having health-related problems, so they took him to a roadway, hoping that somebody would pass by and help him.
When agents followed up on the information, Gonzales said, they located the lifeless body of an approximately 20-year-old Mexican man near the intersection of Kino Springs Drive and Sagebrush Road.
A relative of the victim had also called the Sheriff’s Office to report the situation, Gonzales said.
The man’s body was transferred to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson for an autopsy prior to repatriation to Mexico.
Then at 6:13 p.m. on Saturday, a man called 911 to say that he was in the desert with three other people – two males and a female – and they had no water. The female had heart problems and was feeling faint, the caller said.
Once again operating with good coordinates, authorities were able to find the group and the female was taken to the hospital, Gonzales said.
Earlier on Saturday, sheriff’s dispatch learned from the Border Patrol that agents had discovered human remains – a skull and some bones – in Alamo Canyon, near Boulevard del Rey David.
Sheriff’s deputies responded, retrieved the bones and sent them to the Medical Examiner’s Office, Gonzales said, adding that it wasn’t immediately clear how long the bones had been there.
He wasn’t certain how many remains of suspected border-crossers had been recovered in Santa Cruz County so far this year, but said: “It hasn’t been many up until this past week.”
The Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team is an all-volunteer organization, and a large number of calls can be stressful.
“A lot of them have full-time jobs – and they’re great, they’re absolutely wonderful and when they get the call, they’re always willing to come out and and help,” Gonzales said. “But it does take a toll, especially with the conditions and the weather.”
He noted that in addition to the scorching heat, searchers had to deal with evening thunderstorms last weekend.
“When it’s back-to-back-to-back searches, we also need time to recover, we have to get fresh guys and gals out there,” Gonzales said. “It depends, but it does, at times, stretch our resources.”