BORSTAR team during cliff-rescue training in Laguna Mountains, 12/06/02. "When we found the footprints and started following them, we kept noticing very small footprints."
One night in 1999, eight illegal immigrants died during a spring snowstorm in the mountains of San Diego County. Such alarming statistics spurred the Border Patrol to expand its mission to form two teams to prevent such occurrences. One such team is Border Search Trauma and Rescue, known within the Border Patrol by the acronym BORSTAR. The other, headed by agent Rich Gordon, is the First Alert Snow Team (FAST). "The FAST team was created in October of 2000," explains Gordon, who heads the team, "with agents just from the Campo station. Because of our area of operation, we know these East County border areas. We started thinking, 'What can we do to prevent these disasters?' So we got together guys that knew the backcountry, and we got the equipment that we needed to be able to access these areas.
On April 2, 1999, a late-season snow storm dumped a foot and a half of snow on migrants around Nelson Canyon, a couple of miles east of Interstate 8 and Highway 79. "Eight people died that day."
"And instead of waiting for storms to happen and reacting to situations, we started doing proactive response. During the snow season, we watch the weather forecasts, and prior to a storm arriving, we go out to these canyons we know are used by migrants, and we make sure to the best of our ability that nobody is out in these canyons and remote areas. Then we monitor during the storms to try to keep anybody from entering during the storm. We also send out flyers to all the local residents from Mt. Laguna to the border, and we post signs at all the public places and parks explaining that we're expecting inclement weather, and if you see anybody to please let us know because their lives are in danger. We also call Grupo Beta, which is the border police on the south side, and they go out to where they know the migrants are gathering on the south side of the border, and they warn them not to cross the border because a storm is coming.
Rescued migrant in East County. "Smugglers are so ruthless; they tell them, 'Within a couple of hours across the border, you will be in a vehicle on your way to Chicago.'"
"These people don't really know what they are in for out there," adds Border Patrol agent Ben Bauman. What they're in for is long hikes over rough and sometimes steep terrain. And, if they're crossing between November and April, the possibility of wet, freezing weather. Not only are they not prepared for these circumstances, they're intentionally misled to believe the crossing will be a snap. "I hear this with all the groups that we apprehend or arrest," says agent Gordon, who works out of the Border Patrol's Campo office. "They get to Tijuana or Mexicali, they make arrangements with a smuggler to be brought into the United States and taken to some city. These smugglers are so ruthless, they look at these people as a commodity, and they tell them, 'Within a couple of hours across the border, you will be in a vehicle on your way to Chicago,' or wherever they want to go. We hear that every single time. In reality, it is two, three, four days later, and they are still walking in these remote areas without water and, in winter, without warm clothes. They are physically exhausted and have no idea where they are. And these smugglers, if somebody falls behind, they will just leave them. We have found so many people wandering around out there, lost, and we will ask them, 'What happened?' and they will say, 'I fell behind, I couldn't keep up with the smugglers.' "
The situation would be dangerous enough in good weather. Add a snowstorm, and it becomes deadly. "They might cross on a day when it's sunny and 70 degrees," Gordon says, "but two days later, they're still walking and one of these storm fronts can blow in, and they have no idea that it is coming. And when it hits the East County mountains, it hits with a vengeance. The temperatures just plummet. And these people have no idea what they have gotten themselves into. They may be nearing their pickup point, and here comes this cold front. And it doesn't have to be snowing. Freezing rain is even worse. That's how these things happen."
The "things" Gordon speaks of are the instances of migrants freezing to death in our local mountains. But since the First Alert team was formed, there have been no storm-related fatalities in the local area of operation, though Gordon says there have been some close calls. "I remember we got [a ground sensor] activation in an area where it had been snowing the day prior," he recalls. "When we found the footprints and started following them, we kept noticing very small footprints, which led us to believe that these were small kids. We couldn't believe that in this remote area we would find little kids, and we followed them for about eight hours. When we finally caught up to them, it was a mother and her three young daughters and one other man. The oldest girl was 14 and the youngest was 7. They had no winter clothing and no food and they had been up there for 17 hours walking. Had it not been for us, they would not have found their way. Right there on the spot, we gave them all the food we had, blankets, and hot packs. As we started loading them up, the little girl started crying because her feet were really hurting. It shows you how ruthless these smugglers are. They knew what they were going to put these kids through."
Members of Gordon's First Alert team drive four-wheel-drive Dodge pickup trucks sporting camper shells, off-road tires, and bumper-mounted winches. "If a storm is coming, I'll load it up with a bunch of backpacks filled with food, blankets, and hot packs. And the FAST team agents carry GPSs [global positioning systems]. That's about the extent of our equipment."
If the First Alert Snow Team fails to head off migrants as they unwittingly walk into a storm, and a rescue ensues, then the Border Search Trauma and Rescue team takes over. Agent Keith Jones is one of the group's supervisors. "Usually we get 24, 48, and sometimes if we are lucky 72 hours' notice if there is going to be bad weather," Jones says, as he steers his Chevy Tahoe up Sunrise Highway. "What we will do is when we get confirmation from the weather service that there are storm conditions predicted for the mountains, we will activate our units around the clock. The FAST team will go out and then our BORSTAR guys will go out and will start looking in these high mountain areas for any indication that people may be in the area. We will look for tracks or signs or any other indications that somebody has passed through. Because this terrain is so nasty out here, it is a two-, three-, four-day trip depending on where they are going. So if we get 24 hours', 36 hours' notice that a storm is coming in, and we've got fresh signs coming across the roads, we know they are going to be in the heart of the storm right when it hits. So we will go try to find them before the weather hits."
When the storm hits and they know migrants are out in it, the search-and-rescue team stages its four-wheel-drive command bus "somewhere up around Sunrise Highway, up on top of Interstate 8," Jones says, "kind of the heart of our threat area. That way we can rapidly deploy east and west depending on where we need to be. Because we are already staged out here, when we get a location that somebody is in jeopardy out there, we are right there and we jump right on it."
Jones, medium-sized, fit and muscular with a blond flattop haircut, pulls over on a turnout about ten miles north of Interstate 8. To the south, the land drops steeply away into a pine-filled canyon 1000 feet below. "This is one of the areas where we had a big search," he recalls, "in the winter season of 2000. We had a group of five or six out in a storm, and a snow-plow driver was coming down the road, and a couple of them flagged him down, and he called us. We showed up and they told us they had left a couple of females and a male south. We sent some men down to them. One of them we actually managed to get out, but she had a core temperature of around 84 degrees. A lot of times when their core temperature is down to that point for any length of time, they don't make it to the hospital, or if they do, a lot of things start shutting down on them. But we managed to get her out. The other two unfortunately were deceased by the time we got to them."
"When it snows up here," Jones continues, as he drives back down Sunrise Highway toward I-8, "it is usually just below freezing or just above freezing. So the snow is really wet and sticky, and when it hits you it doesn't brush off. It sticks and melts and then you are wet. And once you are wet, you are done."
In most situations when the search-and-rescue team is deployed, endangered migrants are rescued and carried out by search parties, usually four or five, of volunteer Border Patrol agents on foot. The volunteer agents are all emergency medical technicians and are certified in basic search-and-rescue techniques. And each of them is a specialist in one aspect of search and rescue, such as rope work, tracking, or fast-water rescue. If visibility permits, the injured and near-frozen are lifted out by the Border Patrol's helicopter.
On the way back down the mountain on Interstate 8, Jones recounts another dramatic rescue effort that took place on April 2, 1999. A late-season snow storm dumped a foot and a half of snow on surprised migrants trekking north in and around Nelson Canyon, a couple of miles east of the junction of Interstate 8 and Highway 79. Border Patrol, Sheriff, and Coast Guard helicopters took part in a massive rescue mission. "Eight people died that day," Jones recalls, "but I consider it a successful mission because we saved over 50 people."