McALLEN, Texas — Faced with increased numbers of immigrants crossing the border illegally in South Texas and getting into trouble in the vast ranchlands north of the Rio Grande, the Border Patrol has begun adding emergency medical technicians to its regular helicopter patrols.
On Sunday, a Customs and Border Protection helicopter spotted an 11-year-old girl from El Salvador who had become lost in the brush about an hour drive's north of the border. Others in her group had told agents when they were apprehended that she was missing.
The crew landed nearby, found the girl wet and shivering, but otherwise healthy, and flew her out to nearby Border Patrol vehicles. Temperatures had plunged into the mid-40s that day.
"You're just going to see more people in those remote locations," said Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz. "I think the success that we've seen at our checkpoints, the success we've seen as we deploy additional tools ... that's obviously going to push them, the traffic away from urban areas. So with that we recognize that people who are desperate are going to walk long distances and so ... we're trying to get out there quickly and the air mobile unit allows us to do that."
The Rio Grande Valley has become the busiest sector on the Southwest border. The terrain is rugged, choked with mesquite and soft sand, and is easy to get lost in and brutally hot and dry during the summer months.
For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Border Patrol made about 150,000 arrests in the sector, an increase of more than 50 percent from the previous year. So far this fiscal year, the sector's agents have made more than 20,000 arrests, about 60 percent above last year at this time.
Last year, Border Patrol made more than 700 rescues in this sector, Ortiz said, but agents also found more than 150 bodies.
The Border Patrol has about 100 EMTs spread across its nine stations in the sector. Agents trained as EMTs have been part of search and rescue teams since the late 1990s, but Ortiz said adding them to regular patrols by the Office of Air and Marine began in September.
This southernmost tip of Texas provides the most direct route for immigrants from Central America into the U.S. So far in this fiscal year, more than two-thirds of the apprehensions have been of immigrants from countries other than Mexico.
The rural counties north of the border have struggled with the mounting death toll in recent years.
In Brooks County, home to an inland Border Patrol highway checkpoint, authorities found 129 bodies last year. With just over a month left on the calendar, Sheriff's Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said thankfully it does not appear they'll match last year's record death toll. They picked up victim No. 83 on Tuesday, he said.
Martinez said he supports anything that helps get aid to those in distress quickly.
"There's just no way you're going to put an ambulance in the brush the way it is," Martinez said.
Border Patrol agent Mentor Cavazos said he's still getting accustomed to the flying, especially on windy days, but the air lift makes a difference for him and other EMTs. In an emergency situation, an air crew can reach the ranches surrounding the inland highway checkpoint near Falfurrias from the air base in McAllen in 20 minutes.
The first aid backpack Cavazos and other EMTs carry contains less gear than what they would have aboard a Border Patrol SUV, but the kit contains enough basic supplies, including IVs, to stabilize a patient, he said.
"You've got some very big ranches, very remote locations, there's very little technology, very limited lateral road access," Ortiz said. "And so it's very easy ... to become a casualty of the elements.
"We want to be able to get our people out there quickly to respond when our people are in distress," he said.