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Author John Annerino: Deadly U.S. - Mexico Border Crossings

(CNN) -- John Annerino is a photojournalist and author of "Dead In Their Tracks: Crossing America's Desert Borderlands." In preparation for this book he traveled with four Mexican nationals trying to cross the border into the U.S. through Arizona. Annerino returned again to the border to document others who risk their lives and crossed the Camino del Diablo, midsummer on foot. He is an Arizona native who has been working in the frontier of Old Mexico and the American West for 20 years, documenting indigenous people, natural beauty and political upheaval.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, John Annerino, and welcome.

John Annerino: Good morning and good afternoon, America!

CNN Moderator: You've experienced first hand trying to cross the border with Mexican nationals. Take us through your journey, what problems did you face and how were you able to overcome these problems?

John Annerino: The problems we encountered, as most immigrants encounter crossing the border, is number one, the heat factor. In the southwestern Arizona desert where 14 immigrants perished last week, ground temperatures range from 135 to 160 degrees.

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Number two is the distance. Most migrants try to cover in this region from 35-120 miles. Those factors alone would bring most trained athletes to their knees, if not kill them outright.

The third factor is that there are no marked trails, per se, like Americans are used to. No national-park-type trail with signs marking the way. There are vague, largely indecipherable routes that go from one geographical point to the next. Other elements include poisonous bites and stings from rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Question from chat room: The Mexican government plans to distribute survival kits to would-be migrants who cross the border. What are your thoughts on this?

John Annerino: Excellent question. As I've seen what's included in the survival kit, it's far from adequate. If in fact they're going to do this -- and I don't believe they should -- the kit should include three gallons of water per person, detailed topographical maps, a detailed route description to each canaja, or water source, a compass and a cell or sat phone for when things go to hell, and they will.

Assuming a group has this kit and survives the crossing and escapes detection by the border patrol, the survivor kit should also include a coupon book for food and lodging until they find work and a plane or bus ticket to Chicago or Arkansas, wherever they're headed.

CNN Moderator: What is the "empty quarter" you describe?

John Annerino: The empty quarter I described is southwestern Arizona, a 3500 square mile area, bordering Arizona and Sonora. It's administered by the Barry M. Goldwater Range, a military bombing range.

Since the 1850's, it has been a killing ground for thousands of migrants. This empty quarter has only 35 to 36 known water sources. They're tinaja, rock tank, or a sheep-guzzler, that's one water hole for every 100 square miles.

I've been to each and every one of them on foot or four-wheel drive, and even knowing where they are, they're difficult to locate. No one lives out here. There are few people to rescue you if you get in trouble.

Question from chat room: Hi, John, I understand that Americans living on the border are helping the crossers with water and accommodations. Will the borders ever be opened, and what are the arguments for and against it?

John Annerino: As the greatest nation on earth, I think the most humane thing we could do is to provide safe passage in the form of a guest worker program that would allow our neighbors, who we depend on, to travel safely into the U.S.

That said, I think -- and I'll qualify this -- I think the water stations are well-intentioned and humane in concept, but I believe they're an invitation to slaughter in America's killing grounds. Here's why. We'll look at two different aspects. Placed in southeastern Arizona, in the Douglas-Agua Prieta corridor, nothing short of a manned watchtower would be needed to be placed at each of these water stations. Because if they're not sabotaged by irate locals, they will be targeted by American vigilantes or border thugs as ambush sites to rob, beat, or waylay Mexican migrants. How will this headline play on Sunday morning over cereal and orange juice? "American Vigilantes Massacre 12 Migrants at Water Station Number 3." Or "Border Gangs Beat, Rob and Murder 6 of Their Countrymen at Water Station Number 7" That's the first argument against them.

The second argument is this: If they plan on putting water stations in the Arizona corridor, I cannot think of a crueler way for people to perish. One, where will you put the water stations? Of the seven principal routes that have been used since the end of the Bracero Program in the 1960s, they are just that, vague routes, unmarked. They lead from Mexico's Highway 2 to Interstate 8. How far north of the border will the first station be placed?

My experience has been that it takes a gallon of water to travel eight miles in the summer heat. I'm in shape, acclimated and used to the journey. During the end of the Bracero Program in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the migrants who crossed this area were largely tough campasinos from Sina Loa and Sonora, who were used to difficult, physical labor. They worked in fields 10-14 hours a day. They were mentally resilient. Hundreds of these migrants died trying to cross this no man's land.

Today the crossing demographics have changed. There are Mexican migrants coming from the jungles of Chiapas, the cloudforest of Vera Cruz, and the Bajio of Guanajuato or the colonias of Mexico City. They are not physically acclimated to the killing heat of the Sonoran desert, number one.

Number two, by the time they've traveled 1200 or 1500 miles to reach the border, they are tired, hungry and they may even be malnourished. Materially they are unequipped to cross the desert. They need gas stoves, sturdy boots and backpacks.

So let's look at Los Vidrios, where the 14 migrants perished last week where they were erroneously reported to have departed from. Let's look at that as a departure point, the 70-mile-long route that if you survive, leads to Dateland, AZ, on Interstate 8.

You have a group of 24 migrants. They're ill-equipped. Let's say they have a gallon of water each, as these had last week, unfortunately. The first water station will probably be eight miles out, perhaps on the transect of the El Camino del Diablo, which parallels the U.S.-Mexico border, and Highway 2. Using a gallon of water each, they may be able to cover the linear distance of eight miles. They may survive the heat, but how do they find a flagpole that's 10-feet high without a map, without a compass, without a detailed route description? They don't. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack.

These are vague routes, not marked trails. It's difficult to see a 50-foot tall windmill a quarter or half-mile away if you know where it is. Often, such structures are camouflaged by palo verde, mesquite or ironwood trees, which grow 15-20 feet tall.

Let's assume that the group of 24 miraculously found the water station. They're at the limits of endurance already, out of water. What happens if an earlier group of 24 or 96, as was recently discovered in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, already emptied the water source? They don't have any water to get back to Highway 2 in Mexico; there's not a cell or sat phone at the station, or even an emergency locator beacon to call for a rescue.

Let's assume there was water. Ten gallons. That's a liter and a half of water per person. The next water station is eight miles north. How do they find that one? Two or three men or women may reach it. What do they do? Do they go back for the group? Head 50 miles north to Interstate 8? You have the makings of another tragedy. Once again, there are seven principal routes, not trails, that cross this corridor. It's simply an invitation to disaster. The most inhumane thing you can do is offer the hope of water to a person who can't reach it or find it.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

John Annerino: Nothing is as grim as dying of thirst thousands of miles from home.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, John Annerino.

John Annerino: Good bye, ladies and gentlemen.

John Annerino joined the chat via telephone from Arizona, and CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat at 1:00 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 6, 2001.



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