This Sunday, May 23, marks the 20th anniversary of one of the worst illegal immigration tragedies to date, when 14 migrants succumbed to the elements after getting lost in the unforgiving desert southeast of Yuma.
That day started out as a typical one for David Phagan, who was a Border Patrol agent at the Wellton station at the time. But that day quickly turned from typical to tragic. And 20 years later, it’s still engrained in Phagan’s memory.
As Phagan, now a supervisory Border Patrol agent assigned to the Wellton Station, headed out to the field that morning, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the death and suffering he was about to encounter. But a few hours into his shift, an agent’s worst nightmare became a reality as he came upon a group of four desperate men. The four had been part of a larger group of 28 males who crossed the border from Mexico into the United States and entered an unexpectedly hot, barren and disorienting landscape. The group, which included two guides, stepped into the desert on May 19. Two of them decided to return to Mexico, but the other 24 continued, following their guides through a terrain that would end up swallowing them whole.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how hard and unforgiving this desert is,” Phagan said as he stood in the same spot along a dirt road 30 miles south of Dateland, Arizona, where he encountered the four men two decades ago.
They had been sitting in the shade of a tree near the road waiting and hoping for someone to come along. When they saw Phagan approach in his Border Patrol truck, they ran toward him.
“When they got to me, they were begging for water,” he said. “I tried to cool them off by pouring water on them. They were in bad shape.”
The men told Phagan that there were several more of them in worse condition and most likely dead. With that news, an intense rescue operation was initiated. And when it was all said and done, two days later, a total of 14 migrants were dead, including one of the suspected guides.
“This is a life-or-death situation, especially in the summer,” Phagan said. “If you miss sign, someone could die. People’s lives are in your hands.”
Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeffrey Townzen had only 11 months in the patrol and six months in the field when he became part of the rescue operation that day.
“It was an eye opener,” he said. “The ones that were still alive, you could see it in their eyes that you were saving their lives. The ones you saved are the ones you remember. That was something I won’t forget.”
Chris Coleman, now a Wellton station supervisor, was working the swing shift at the time of the rescue and spent the night backtracking the sign of a brother from the initial group of four that Phagan encountered.
“We backtracked his sign all night long and found him dead under a tree at about 1 a.m.,” he said. “That first day I remember. I remember pushing the sign. It was hard to push because the guy was all over the place. He put his shoes on the ground and folded up all his clothes with his wallet on top.
“Those were the longest [couple days] of my career,” Coleman said.
Coleman and Townzen both said the incident had a big impact on the Wellton station, not only among the agents who were involved in the rescue, but also on station operations.
“It really affected the Wellton station and how big the station grew,” Townzen said.
In addition to adding manpower, Townzen said the station also added a forward operating camp, called Camp Grip, south of the area where the migrants died, and several rescue beacons were placed throughout the desert.
“It changed the way we did everything,” Coleman added.
Although this incident was 20 years ago, the story is still all too familiar today. Smugglers and guides regularly risk the lives of the migrants who pay them thousands of dollars for help to get into the United States. Smugglers and guides are known to abandon their groups whenever they run into an obstacle, such as a migrant getting injured or sick or detection by a Border Patrol agent. Those who can’t keep up are left behind, which seemed to be the case with this group.
When the two guides, who carelessly led these migrants into the harshest region of the Sonoran Desert, realized they were lost and the group was in trouble, they collected whatever money the migrants had left and told the group they were going to get water and that they would be back.
Agents found the guides several miles north of the initial four. One was dead and the other was near death. It is believed that they had no intention of returning to help. The surviving guide, Jesus Lopez-Ramos, who was 20 years old at the time, was eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
“The thing that gets me is you still see it every day,” said Coleman, a 21-year veteran of the Border Patrol. “The smugglers, they don’t care.”
Phagan, whose account of the incident has been included in books and articles, said it seems like a long time ago, yet the picture in his mind seems like yesterday.
“It’s the most important thing I’ve done in my career,” Phagan said. “You wish it didn’t happen but you’re glad you were here. We were here.”