Deadly Dash on Road North : Freeways Near Border Take High Toll of Aliens

Times Staff Writer

Raymundo Torres Carranza, like most Mexican migrant workers, didn’t carry much on his long trek to the north: His satchel contained two pairs of gray socks and a pair of black trousers, presumably all he brought on the well-traveled route from the interior state of Michoacan to the fields of Vista in northern San Diego County. A 50-year-old father of seven, Torres had made the journey before. He knew to travel light.

The bag was found amid the racing nighttime tumult of southbound Interstate 805, a much-traveled eight-lane highway that bisects the county, ending at the U.S.-Mexican border.

Killed by a Station Wagon

Ten feet from the satchel, authorities found the remains of Torres’ battered body, his amputated left leg lying on the road.


Torres was not a victim of a bandit or of Border Patrol bullets. Nor did he succumb in a dispute with fellow migrants or as a result of a blood feud originating deep in the Mexican interior.

Torres was killed by a station wagon. He and two other people, presumably undocumented immigrants like Torres, were seen running across the freeway at about 9 p.m. Oct. 16, shortly before the accident occurred. “The other two individuals crossing the highway disappeared when they safely reached the west side of (the) highway,” a coroner’s report noted.

Raymundo Torres Carranza, less fortunate that his colleagues, became one more numbing statistic, yet another illegal alien pedestrian mauled on the highways of San Diego County, gateway to the Los Angeles job market and the largest single entry point for the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who cross the border each year. As it happens, Torres was part of a record-setting blip on the charts: He was one of 10 undocumented immigrants killed on San Diego highways in October, setting a monthly high for such carnage, according to the California Highway Patrol. Two or three fatalities a month is typical.

“I just hope that October was an unusual month,” said Richard Clopine, an accident investigator with the Highway Patrol in San Diego.

The death of immigrant pedestrians has been a longtime problem in San Diego, El Paso and other border cities, a grisly sideshow in the drama of illegal immigration. But the sharp rise in San Diego in October--an increase that authorities say is probably a one-time aberration--focused national attention on the ongoing slaughter.

“It’s a massacre out there,” said Roberto Martinez, a longtime Chicano activist who heads the border program for the American Friends Service Committee, social action arm of the Quaker Church. “I’m sure there would be a greater outcry if white people and U.S. citizens were being run over that frequently.”

Authorities nod in agreement.

“These victims don’t have any spokesman,” noted Lloyd Needham, a Highway Patrol spokesman, who said the deaths are a top priority with his agency. “If this were happening to citizens, certainly there would be more interest in what to do.”

While El Paso and other border cities experience similar problems, authorities say the massive volume of migrants crossing in San Diego, plus the vast grid of California freeway that converges at the border, make this area by far the most hazardous for the immigrant pedestrians. Highway Patrol officials say the freeways near the border have some of the largest pedestrian-fatality rates of any thoroughfares in the nation.

No one knows exactly how many illegal aliens are killed on the freeways and roads of San Diego County, but it is clear that the human toll is substantial--and rising, although the reason for the increase is murky. Apart from those killed, a large number of victims are also injured but survive.

Though most victims are Mexican citizens, Central Americans have also been hit. Some victims are never identified, as many carry little or no identification and may be badly mauled; such remains are eventually turned over to the county for cremation.

In the case of Raymundo Torres, relatives managed to scrape together enough money to return the body to Mexico. “He’s buried in his tierra (homeland),” said his niece Hilda Torres, a 23-year-old Vista resident who has herself crossed the freeways on the road to the north but now says she would be frightened to do it. “He was a good man.”

Many Hit-and-Run Deaths

Many of the deaths are hit-and-run. Some drivers, fearful and themselves traumatized by the experience of hitting a person, never stop at the scene, even though they might not be at fault. If discovered, which occurs rarely, they could be charged with hit-and-run driving. Witnesses are usually sparse.

“It can be tough for a lot of people to handle,” Needham said.

The Highway Patrol counts a record 28 victims in 1988--including a “John Doe” killed along Interstate 5 on Dec. 21--but that number doesn’t include those who died on other roads. The number killed on the freeways has been steadily rising--17 deaths in 1987, 12 in 1986, 9 in 1985, according to the Highway Patrol. Most are killed near the border area, but others are hit throughout the region, including North County, where fields worked by the laborers frequently flank the freeways.

There is no satisfactory explanation as to why the numbers of immigrant pedestrian fatalities has been rising in recent years. The increase could be explained easily if more people were crossing the border, but the fact is that the numbers of aliens arrested in the border area has been decreasing in the past two years.

The problem is traceable to the peculiar traffic configuration of the border at San Diego. Two major interstates, 805 and 5, converge just north of the international line. A major east-west route, Interstate 905 (formerly California 117), parallels the boundary. Taken together, the trelliswork of expressways form a formidable series of barriers for the immigrants, who are often weary and disoriented after arduous and often dangerous treks. The immigrants usually cross the freeways seeking transportation, either from friends, coyotes (smugglers) or in taxis, buses and the trolley.

Patrolled by Agents

The migrants are hesitant to use regular streets or overpasses, fearing detection by the immigration agents who patrol the area on foot, in vehicles and in aircraft. The minimal highway lighting makes for considerable cover for the migrants, as does shrubbery that lines the roads. The green areas alongside the highways are filled with evidence of the immigrants’ presence: letters, official documents and the discarded papers of Central Americans who want to pass as Mexicans and thereby avoid deportation to their homelands if apprehended. The chain-link fences that cut the highways off from the streets are in a constant state of disrepair, allowing the aliens easy access.

Complicating matters is the fact that many of the travelers are from country settings and have never experienced anything like California’s superhighways. Often groups cross at once, led by a guide or knowledgeable migrant; not infrequently, the last in the group, often the oldest or youngest, is hit.

“The last one might be just a little too slow,” noted one Border Patrol officer.

At night, motorists often glimpse the shadowy figures racing across the interstates like ghosts.

“It’s done out of fear and desperation,” said Martinez, the rights activist. “You’re running for your life, and sometimes you misjudge the speed of the vehicles and the width of the road.”

Apparently, such was the case on the morning of Oct. 30, when Maria Justa Nunez Herrera, 55, was struck by several vehicles along I-805 near the border, according to coroner’s reports. The woman, who died at the scene, was accompanied by two of her children, who were unhurt. The children were turned over to the Border Patrol.

Poised for Action

“I didn’t have time to stop,” said Howard Quach of Garden Grove, who was among those who ran over the woman’s body after she had already died. Unlike others, he did pull over and wait for police.

Some critics maintain that the Border Patrol has aggravated matters by occasionally chasing aliens toward the highways in an effort to cut them off. (Patrol officers in Northern California have been accused of forcing fleeing aliens toward canals and rivers, a policy that critics say has resulted in numerous drownings.) But Robert Gilson, assistant chief Border Patrol agent in San Diego, denied the charge, contending that agents attempt to concentrate suspected illegal entrants away from the highways, not toward them.

With awareness of the pedestrian hazard heightening, authorities say they are poised to act. Officials of the California Department of Transportation say the agency is considering options ranging from signs warning motorists that pedestrians may be on the roads to a public-education campaign in the Mexican media. A $250,000 plan to improve lighting on I-805 is already in the works. Shrubbery along the roads is being pruned, officials say, to reduce hiding places. Another possibility is the lowering of speed limits near the border, although this is a complicated step that authorities say may not necessarily be effective, particularly given the widespread disregard for speeding laws.

“We’re very concerned,” said James Larson, a Caltrans spokesman in San Diego. But, he added, signs, additional lighting and other remedies can be expensive. “And frankly, there’s scarce money around.”

The problem is likely to remain as long as undocumented immigrants continue to cross the border. And there is no sign that the massive movement of humanity into San Diego and other border areas is about to abate.

A few days before Christmas, Eduardo Lopez, a 38-year-old laborer from the northern state of Sinaloa, crouched amid the acacia trees along the northbound lanes of I-805, waiting for the right moment to lunge across the freeway. Lopez said he had been dropped off by a coyote in the border community of San Ysidro, but he had failed to hook up with his supposed ride to Los Angeles, where he had a wife and child. Fearing that the coyote may have abandoned him, he said he was planning to head for the western side of the road and seek out his contact.

“It’s a risk crossing el freeway, " Lopez agreed, “but everywhere else it’s pure migra "--U.S. immigration officials. At any rate, he said, he had crossed the freeway several times before.

“Feliz Navidad,” Lopez, smiling lightheartedly, yelled to a reporter shortly before he dashed across the freeway. A moment later, after hopping the center divider, he was safe on the other side.