Migrant Deaths Rise on U.S.-Mexico Border in 2003
Wed Oct 1, 8:06 PM ET Add U.S. National - Reuters to My Yahoo!

By Deborah Tedford

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Reuters) - The number of migrants who died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border rose to the highest level in three years during 2003, according to the latest statistics released on Wednesday by U.S. officials.

At least 346 migrants from Mexico and Latin America died trying to cross the border during the government's 2003 fiscal year, which ended on Tuesday, the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection said.

The figure exceeded last year's death toll by 26 and 2001 figures by 10.

This year's total was the highest recorded since 2000, when 383 perished, bureau spokeswoman Gloria Chavez told Reuters.

Border officials in the United States and Mexico joined efforts to curb the deaths this year, airing community service announcements, setting up emergency beacons and sending out rescue patrols.

The United States recently piloted a program to repatriate Mexican migrants arrested in the deadliest part of the Arizona desert to six cities nearly 1,000 miles away.

The Lateral Repatriation Program aims to cut deaths by making it difficult for migrants to cross again in the desert. Most are repatriated into neighboring Sonora state.

The main cause of death, with at least 139 cases, was dehydration or exposure in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. It has become the main migration route since a border crackdown known as Operation Gatekeeper began eight years ago.

Others drowned in the Rio Grande River (called Rio Bravo in Mexico) that divides Texas and Mexico, or perished in car crashes in unsuccessful attempts at "border running," or trying to outrun border patrol agents on rural highways and freeways.

The death statistics do not include dozens who suffocate in boxcars or die in high-speed car chases in counties that are not located along the border -- like 19 who died in May in an airless tractor-trailer near Victoria, Texas.

Chavez said border agents succeeded in saving many lives. During 2003, they rescued more than 1,200 migrants, giving emergency medical treatment to many and transporting others to area hospitals, she said.

Hector Aguilar with Mexico's Foreign Relations office here, said Mexico's Grupo Beta, an agency that counsels and supports migrants, mounted regular rescue missions south of the border.