WORLD

Tragedy in Texas

ANDREW BILSKI July 13 1987
WORLD

Tragedy in Texas

ANDREW BILSKI July 13 1987

Tragedy in Texas

WORLD

Last Thursday morning, on a routine inspection of a freight train in Sierra Blanca, Tex., U.S. Border Patrol agent Stanley Saathoff heard a muffled voice coming from inside a sealed steel-walled boxcar. Sliding open the heavy wooden door, he was hit by a waft of stifling heat and the stench of human death. As the bright Texas sun illuminated the boxcar’s dark interior, Saathoff discovered a grim scene: 18 nude, blood-splattered bodies and a lone survivor, 21-year-old Miguel Tostado Rodríguez. “I could hear Miguel’s pleas for help: ‘Please help us, we need help,’ ” Saathoff said. “I opened the door and saw Miguel. He was very wet, in his underwear, crying some, visibly shook.”

The boxcar victims were Mexicans who were being smuggled into the United States as illegal workers for a combined fee of about $10,000. And some border guards said that such a tragedy was almost inevitable. Despite a stringent immigration law signed by President Ronald Reagan last November, each day thousands of Mexicans furtively cross the ramshackle 12-foottall fence—known as the Tortilla Curtain—which spans parts of the U.S.Mexican border. By some estimates, more than six million aliens have slipped across the border since the early 1950s, the vast majority of them Mexicans attracted by the large pool of low-paying and menial jobs unwanted by many Americans. Many illegal immigrants are caught and deported by the 3,300-strong Border Patrol. But an

estimated 65 per cent make their way into the United States, often aided by sophisticated smuggling rings.

Last week’s trip started out as a normal illegal crossing, but Border Patrol agents said that something went terribly wrong. Tostado told authorities that after sneaking them across the border to El Paso, the smugglers put them on a train and were to guide them to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But in an effort to avoid detection, one of the smugglers locked the illegal aliens and two fellow smugglers—they were among the dead—inside the boxcar

Wednesday afternoon while the train was in the Missouri Pacific rail yard in El Paso. Border Patrol officials said that the smugglers probably assumed that agents would not check a sealed car.

Tostado said that the smuggler tossed two railway spikes inside before he closed the door, telling them to poke their way to freedom once the train had reached its destination. But 140 km southeast of El Paso, the train developed a mechanical problem and was sidelined near Sierra Blanca. There the hapless passengers spent a long night gasping for breath in temperatures exceeding 50°C.

Tostado survived by jabbing a spike through the wooden floor of the boxcar and breathing through the opening. According to El Paso’s chief Border Patrol agent Michael Williams, the victims appeared to have died from heat exhaustion or asphyxiation. He said that many of the bodies were discolored and bloated and that “there was a lot of blood about.” Indeed, Tostado told a grisly tale of desperation and violence as the Mexicans’ meagre supply of oxygen and water ran out. “They started fighting with each other because they were desperate to breath and [for] water,” said Tostado. “People started dying little by little. With the darkness inside I couldn’t tell about the others. I thought some of them would be alive. But when the doors were opened they were all dead.” At week’s end, Texas law enforcement officials searched for clues to the identity of the smuggler who had locked the boxcar door. As well, they continued the difficult task of identifying the victims from clothing scattered around the boxcar floor. Tostado told authorities that at least six of the dead were from his home town of Pabellón de Arteaga in central Mexico and that others might have come from the neighboring state of Zacatecas.

Despite the tragic end to last week’s smuggling effort, few observers expected destitute Mexicans to end their often dangerous attempts to find a better life in the United States. On the banks of the muddy Rio Grande River, which separates the two countries, Dave Teague, one of 239 Border Patrol agents who police 85,000 square miles of desert, mountains and cityscape around El Paso, described the futility of his job. “I’ve seen a single agent confronted with 300 crossing at a time,” he said. “There’s no way to stop them.”

—ANDREW BILSKI with correspondents’ reports