Tragedy in the Arizona desert: Border agents recall discovery of 14 dead migrants 20 years ago

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YUMA, Ariz. (Border Report) — Twenty years ago, one of the worst illegal immigration tragedies took place when 14 migrants died after getting lost in the desert southeast of Yuma, Ariz.

Smugglers abandoned the immigrants with little food and water in temperatures that reached 115 degrees and reportedly told them they needed to only walk a few hours to reach a highway.

The highway was more than 50 miles away.

For Border Patrol Agent David Phagan, who was assigned to the Wellton Border Patrol Station at the time, the day began like many others he had experienced before.

But a couple of hours into his shift, the mundane turned tragic, and 20 years later, Phagan can’t shake the memories.

He came upon a group of four desperate men who had been part of a larger group of 28 who were following two guides.

They had crossed the border from Mexico into the United States into a barren and unforgiving landscape under searing temperatures.

Their journey began on May 19, but soon two of the migrants decided to return to Mexico, but the other 24 continued on following the guides. It would be another four days before they were found.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand how hard and unforgiving this desert is,” Phagan said.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand how hard and unforgiving this desert is.”

Border Patrol Agent David Phagan

According to Phagan, the men had been sitting in the shade of a tree near the road waiting 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.”

Border Patrol Agent David Phagan is now a supervisor assigned to the Wellton Border Patrol Station. (Courtesy: Customs and Border Protection)

The men told Phagan there were several more of them in worse condition and most likely dead.

An intense search and rescue operation ensued.

Two days later, a total of 14 migrants were dead, including one of the suspected guides.

Only 12 survivors were found, many from the Mexican state of Veracruz who were hospitalized in Yuma with severe dehydration and kidney damage. One was still missing.

According to an Associated Press article written 20 years ago, a priest named Javier Perez visited the immigrants in the hospital, where they told him they had survived by digging up roots and breaking cactus to drink its juice. One told doctors he drank his own urine out of desperation.

Chris Coleman, now a Wellton Border Patrol Station supervisor, was also working that day.

He had been assigned the swing shift and spent the first night of the rescue operation backtracking a brother of one of the migrants in the initial group of four Phagan had encountered.

“We backtracked all night long and found him dead under a tree at about 1 a.m.,” said Coleman. “He put his shoes on the ground and folded up all his clothes with his wallet on top, those were the longest couple of days of my career.”

Interviews with survivors revealed the two guides, who had led the migrants into the Sonoran Desert, realized they were lost and began collecting whatever money the migrants had on them, telling the group they were going to get water and 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 has said the tragedy seems like a long time ago, yet the picture in his mind seems like it was 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.”

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