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Cross-border manhunt seeks smugglers linked to 14 migrant deaths

Mexican citizens wait for a chance to cross into the U.S. from just outside Tijuana, Mexico on Thursday
Mexican citizens wait for a chance to cross into the U.S. from just outside Tijuana, Mexico on Thursday  

YUMA, Arizona (CNN) -- U.S. and Mexican officials have launched a joint manhunt for smugglers believed responsible for abandoning a group of 27 illegal immigrants with little water in the sizzling Arizona desert, resulting in at least 14 deaths.

Mexican police have questioned, but not arrested, a possible suspect in the case, said Roberto Rodriguez, an official with the Mexican Department of State. No details on the suspect have been released.

Twelve men in the group were rescued, and the search continued Thursday afternoon for at least one man so far unaccounted for, said Johnny Williams, director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's western region.

"One death on this border is in fact one death too many," Williams said. "We will do everything humanly possible to bring those responsible for this tragedy to justice."

CNN's Eric Phillips reports on the illegal immigrants hospitalized from dehydration

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Williams said the group of illegal immigrants, now believed to have included 27 adult males, crossed the border Saturday in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a rugged, remote area about 70 miles south of Interstate 8, the nearest road, with a smuggler and several guides.

The group apparently became lost in the desert, and Williams said the smugglers probably abandoned the group, promising to go for help. A massive search, covering an area the size of Delaware, was launched Wednesday after four of the immigrants were found alive about halfway between the border and the interstate.

With temperatures in the 100s and virtually no water in the area, Williams said the men who died suffered a "grisly" death from dehydration. A person in those conditions would have needed to carry at least five gallons of water, weighing about 40 pounds, to survive, he said.

"It is one of the most terrible deaths that can happen to a human being," he said.

Yuma County Sheriff Ralph Ogden said the men, who had split up, were all found in a two-mile-square area, about 35 miles from where they are believed to have crossed the border. Some of them had discarded their clothing, and only one or two water jugs were found, he said.

All of the 12 men rescued were being treated at Yuma Regional Medical Center. Officials said one man, whose kidneys had stopped functioning, was in critical condition and another was in serious condition.

The other 10 were in fair condition, officials said, adding several of the men were within hours of death when they were found. All were given intravenous fluids upon their arrival.

Arizona police, the U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican police have launched a joint investigation. At a press conference Thursday afternoon, they declined to release details of the ordeal provided by survivors, saying that information was part of the investigation.

"We are sharing information regarding this incident in order to bring justice," said Rodriguez. "We hope that the full extent of the law is going to be applied."

He also said Mexican officials would "reinforce our campaigns in order to alert the people that they don't have to cross in these dangerous and isolated areas."

Under U.S. anti-smuggling laws, those responsible for bringing the men into the country could face the death penalty, Williams said.

"We are jointly after one thing -- to bring the people responsible for taking people to areas like this and endangering their very lives to justice," he said.

• Immigration and Naturalization Service
• The National Immigration Forum

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