3 Bodies Found in Texas Rail Car

Times Staff Writers

Investigators scouring a train yard discovered the decomposed bodies of two men and a teenager in a rail car Tuesday, shortly after three Mexican citizens told a priest that they had managed to escape the stifling car but were forced to leave their dying friends behind.

The discovery -- the 118th, 119th and 120th immigrants' bodies found this year along the Southwest border -- came the same day that U.S. and Mexican authorities announced a renewed program of vigilance to discourage, apprehend and rescue people crossing the border illegally.

That effort will focus on Arizona's "Corridor of Death," where more migrants die than in any other border zone. At a news conference in Tucson, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner and Mexican officials said they will increase staffing, patrols and helicopter flights in an effort to stem mounting death tolls in the western Arizona desert.

The United States will assign more than 150 additional Border Patrol agents and two new surveillance aircraft to the region. Emergency beacons are being installed in the desert, where migrants can activate them to alert rescue personnel. Mexican Undersecretary of Interior Javier Moctezuma Barragan said his country plans to change the status of Grupo Beta troops from part time to full time; the troops are assigned to protect human rights and perform rescue operations when necessary.

"This is a coordinated effort between the United States and Mexico to achieve a very noble and mutually important goal. That's to save lives," Bonner said.

Both sides described it as the most comprehensive such effort to date.

But the program is the latest in a series of awareness and enforcement campaigns along the 2,000-mile border, none of which have had much success in slowing the flow of illegal immigration into the United States. Instead, the campaigns have resulted in strategy shifts and new resolve among Latin Americans determined to find work across the border.

And the three deaths in Baytown, Texas, an industrial city nestled against the rusting hulls and mammoth cranes of Houston's shipping channel, mark the latest incident underscoring the chaos and desperation of the border. The episode had some questioning the governments' new campaign even before it could begin.

"For me, the event simply points to a need for immigration reform," said Father Jayme Mathias, a Franciscan priest who acted as a liaison between law enforcement and the survivors so the rail car and the bodies could be found. Mathias spoke in a telephone interview from Christo Rey Catholic Church in Austin, Texas, where he is an associate pastor.

"I feel a certain outrage at the governments of the United States and Mexico," he said. "These deaths were preventable. It is a sin that a rich nation turns its back on a poor nation that is its neighbor. For these three, their options were to die of poverty or die trying to escape it. These are three more sacrifices to the gods of indifference."

Carl Rusnok, a U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement field liaison, questioned the assessment that U.S. border policies are to blame for the deaths. "We are enforcing immigration law," he said.

In the last week of May, the bodies of eight immigrants, most of them victims of exposure to extreme temperatures, were discovered in the Tucson area.

Those deaths came after several high-profile incidents involving illegal immigrants in Texas: the deaths of 19 immigrants stuffed by smugglers into the back of an airless tractor-trailer; allegations that six immigrants were assaulted by a paramilitary group patrolling the border on its own; and the death Sunday of a Mexican citizen shot by a ranch hand who mistook him for a feral hog.

In the latest incident, five men and a 16-year-old boy, all believed to be Mexican citizens, appear to have illegally crossed the border last week near Del Rio, Texas, west of San Antonio and north of Laredo. On Friday, near Spofford, Texas, they opened the hatch of an empty rail car while the train was stopped, climbed inside and shut the door behind them.

Within hours, it was clear to the migrants that they might not survive, said Angeles Gomez, an officer at the Mexican consulate in Austin. But the ceiling of the rail car, known as a hopper and often used to haul grain, was at least 10 feet high, said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis. No one is sure how they reached the ceiling, but investigators suspect that the group was able to boost one man through the hatch and that man then used a rope fashioned from clothing to help the others out.

On Sunday, the men told Mathias about the ordeal, saying three people were dead. After providing a description of where they sneaked aboard the train and the freight it was carrying, including lumber and automobiles, Union Pacific was able to determine that they were aboard a Los Angeles-to-Houston freight train.

"When you are in an enclosed container made of steel ... it absorbs the heat. It's 100 degrees. You've got the heat beating down on the rail car," said Harris County (Texas) Sheriff's Capt. Robert Van Pelt. "It's pretty gruesome."

Authorities did not release the identities of the dead. The survivors were not in custody, and Mathias declined to say whether he knew where they were headed.

"I have an interest in their spiritual welfare. I have no interest in revealing their whereabouts," Mathias said. "I was trying to find three bodies, not give names and phone numbers as the authorities were demanding."

Van Pelt, however, said it is important that authorities find the survivors. He and other investigators said there is no evidence that this incident began with a smuggling operation, but Van Pelt said authorities would like to speak with survivors partly to ensure that smugglers were not involved.

The 120 bodies discovered this year match the number discovered at this point last year, said Henry Rolon, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman. However, record temperatures and a stifling drought, combined with poor economic conditions in Mexico and other countries, have summoned fears that this summer could be particularly deadly.

While the U.S. perspective is primarily that migrant deaths are a law enforcement issue, Mexico sees it as a political problem -- one that highlights the failure of the U.S. to legalize migrant labor. Last week, Mexican President Vicente Fox called on President Bush to resume work on such a law, an effort that has been on the back burner since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

U.S. population figures indicate that the number of illegal immigrants continues to rise at a rate of 500,000 per year, despite stringent border policies.

The chances that the campaign announced on Tuesday will have an effect are small as long as economic deprivation in Latin America continues to motivate people to look north for better lives, said Wayne Cornelius, director of UC San Diego's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.

Also, migrants will keep dying because the Border Patrol has successfully sealed off the safest border routes near urban areas, he said, forcing migrants to take greater risks hiking or riding rails through deserts, where temperatures reach 115 degrees.

"There is no way to make the current strategy of border enforcement more humane because the basic premise of the strategy is to force migrants and smugglers who assist them into ever-more remote areas," Cornelius said.

Rusnok said the "real crux" of the problem isn't the U.S. government's policies but a failure to teach immigrants that they face grave dangers in attempting to cross the border.

"A lot of people just don't understand the geography involved, the expanse involved in the vastness of the desert, how harsh it is," he said. "A lot of these people don't recognize that they are taking additional risks."

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Gold reported from Baytown, Texas, and Kraul from Tucson. Staff researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this report.

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