A dual-engine Border Patrol boat surveys the Rio Grande west of Del Rio, Texas.

Why one area along the US-Mexico border saw drownings triple and water rescues skyrocket more than 1000%

Updated 10:34 PM ET, Sat October 12, 2019

Chat with us in Facebook Messenger. Find out what's happening in the world as it unfolds.

(CNN)Newly released data reveals a dramatic shift in the region along the Rio Grande over the past year -- and offers a window into the human toll of turmoil at the border.

Water-related deaths tripled in the Border Patrol's Del Rio sector from fiscal year 2018 to fiscal year 2019, according to data CNN obtained from US Customs and Border Protection. And water rescues spiked dramatically there, too, climbing by more than 1000%.
The sector, a largely rural area of southwest Texas that includes the towns of Del Rio and Eagle Pass, covers a 210-mile stretch of the Rio Grande.
Government statistics -- often touted by officials and criticized by immigrant rights advocates -- are only one snapshot of the complex realities of the 1,933-mile border between the US and Mexico. But they're an important part of the overall picture.
"They help, because they give us the trend," says Néstor Rodríguez, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who's studied deaths along the border for decades.
And while officials and advocates offer different explanations for the trend in 2019, they agree that it's troubling.

A closer look at the numbers

Drownings at the border surged into the public spotlight over the summer, when the shocking image of a father and daughter floating face-down in the Rio Grande ricocheted around the world and drew global attention to the crisis.
    And in the past year, there have been numerous reports of deaths and dramatic rescues in the river -- a teenager who agents found limp in the water and helped resuscitate; the desperate, weeklong search for a Brazilian toddler whose remains were never found; a Honduran mother and son who decided to take their chances in the river because US authorities had forced them to stay in Mexico, and died trying to cross it.
    Rugged cliffs along the Rio Grande in Val Verde County, Texas, form a natural barrier between Mexico (right) and the US.
    With such occurrences increasingly capturing public and political attention, CNN asked CBP for the latest numbers on water-related deaths and rescues in the five Border Patrol sectors that touch the river.
    The overall picture for fiscal year 2019, which ended on September 30, shows that CBP's tally of water-related deaths across all five sectors increased 4% compared to the previous year, from 46 to 48. But water-related rescues shot up more than 650%, increasing from 65 in fiscal year 2018 to 490 in fiscal year 2019.
    The increase was especially dramatic in the Del Rio sector, where water-related deaths tripled. In fiscal year 2018, the Del Rio sector reported six water-related deaths; the following year, there were 18.
    And agents in Del Rio handled the majority of water rescues in sectors along the Rio Grande in 2019, pulling 351 people from bodies of water in the sector -- a big jump from 31 people the previous year.