Officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border looked for more victims Saturday after at least nine migrants died while trying to cross the rain-swollen Rio Grande, a dangerous border crossing in an area where river levels it had climbed more than 2 feet in one day.
US Customs and Border Protection and Mexican officials discovered the victims near Eagle Pass, Texas, on Thursday after days of heavy rain. U.S. officials recovered six bodies, while Mexican teams recovered three, according to a CBP statement. It is one of the deadliest drownings on the US-Mexico border in recent history.
The river, which was just over 3 feet (90 centimeters) deep at the start of the week, reached more than 1.5 meters on Thursday and water was flowing five times faster than usual, according to the National Weather Service.
CBP said U.S. crews rescued 37 others from the river and arrested another 16, while Mexican officials arrested 39 migrants.
CBP did not say which country or countries the migrants came from and did not provide additional information about the rescue and search operations. Local Texas agencies involved have not responded to requests for information.
Among the bodies pulled from the river by Mexican authorities were a man and a pregnant woman, although their nationalities were unknown, said Francisco Contreras, a member of Civil Protection in the Mexican border state of Coahuila. No details were released about the third body found.
The Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, is quickly becoming the busiest corridor for illegal crossings. Agents stopped immigrants nearly 50,000 times in the area in July, with the Rio Grande Valley in second place with about 35,000. Eagle Pass is located about 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of San Antonio.
Chief Patrol Agent Jason Owens of the Del Rio Sector said that despite dangerous currents from recent rains, Border Patrol agents in the sector continue to encounter groups of 100 or 200 people trying to cross the Rio Grande each day.
“In an effort to prevent further loss of life, we are asking everyone to avoid illegal crossing,” Owens said in a statement.
Among the reasons the region has become popular for migrants in recent years is that it is not as heavily controlled by cartels and is perceived as somewhat safer, said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Central American and Mexico Policy Initiative at the University of Texas Center . on international security and law.
“It might be a different price. It can be considered safer. It can keep you out of cities that are notoriously dangerous,” Leutert said. “Those towns (in the Del Rio sector) certainly had a reputation for being safer than, say, Nueva Laredo.”
The area attracts immigrants from dozens of countries, many of them families with young children. About six out of 10 stops in the Del Rio sector in July were immigrants from Venezuela, Cuba or Nicaragua. The region has also been a popular crossing point for Haitian migrants, thousands of whom have been stranded in border towns since 2016, when the Obama administration abruptly ended a policy that initially allowed them to enter on humanitarian grounds.
The sector, which stretches 245 miles (395 kilometers) along the Rio Grande, was particularly dangerous because the river’s currents can be deceptively fast and change quickly. Crossing the river can be difficult even for strong swimmers.
“There are places where the water level drops where you can get across, but when the river rises it’s extremely dangerous, especially if you’re carrying children or trying to help someone who isn’t a strong swimmer,” Leutert said.
In a news release last month, CBP said it had discovered the bodies of more than 200 dead immigrants in the sector from October to July.
This year is on track to break last year’s record for the most deaths at the US-Mexico border since 2014, when the UN’s International Organization for Migration began keeping records. The group has counted more than 4,000 deaths at the border since 2014, based on news and other sources, including 728 last year and 412 in the first seven months of this year, often from dehydration or drowning. June was the fourth deadliest month on record, with 138 deaths.
The Border Patrol has not released official counts as of 2020.
In June, 53 migrants were found dead or dying in a tractor-trailer on a back road in San Antonio, in the deadliest documented tragedy to claim the lives of migrants smuggled across the border from Mexico.
“The whole journey speaks to people’s desperation,” Leutert said. “They know that crossing the river is dangerous. They know that hiking through ranchos is dangerous. They know that crossing into Mexico as a foreigner is dangerous. But they’re willing to do this because what they’re leaving behind is, to them, a worse possibility than to face the danger and try for a better opportunity in the US.”
Some of the busiest border crossings — including Eagle Pass and Yuma, Arizona — were relatively quiet two years ago and are now drawing large numbers of migrants from outside Mexico and from Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Mexico has agreed to accept immigrants from the “Northern Triangle” countries, as well as its own nationals, if they are deported from the United States under Title 42, the pandemic rule that took effect in March 2020 and denies the rights to apply for asylum for reasons of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
People from other countries are likely to be released to the United States on humanitarian parole or with notices to appear in immigration court because the U.S. has difficulty bringing them home because of costs, strained diplomatic relations, or other reasons. In the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, only one in four stops in July was processed under the pandemic rule, compared with about half at the rest of the border, according to government data.
Venezuelans were by far the most common nationality encountered by Border Patrol agents in the Del Rio Sector in July, accounting for 14,120 of 49,563 stops, or nearly three in 10. Cubans followed, who were stopped 10,275 times, followed by Mexicans. Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Colombians, in that order.
As more people crossed into South Texas in the 2010s, Brooks County became a death trap for many migrants who tried to walk around a Border Patrol highway checkpoint in the town of Falfuria, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of the border. Smugglers dropped them off before the checkpoint and arranged to pick them up on the other side, but some perished on the way from dehydration.
The Baboquivari Mountains in Arizona and ranches in Brooks County, Texas still draw Border Patrol agents and grieving families hoping to rescue migrants or, if not, find bodies, but deceptively strong currents around the towns of Eagle Pass and Del. Rio, Texas has become increasingly dangerous as the area has become one of the most popular points for illegal entry into the United States.
Not all victims are immigrants. In April of this year, the body of a Texas ranger was pulled from the Rio Grande. He had jumped in to try to help a migrant who was struggling in the water.
Spagat reported from San Diego and Murphy from Oklahoma City. Associated Press writers Terry Wallace in Dallas and Fabiola Sanchez in Mexico City contributed.