With the risk of getting caught too high at San Diego, immigrant smugglers are moving their human cargo eastward through more open but dangerous territory, including a military artillery range.
For the second time in as many weeks, agents fanned out over the rugged Chocolate Mountains after two beaten and dehydrated immigrants staggered out of the mountains Tuesday and told authorities they and about 30 others were abandoned by smugglers."They were in pretty bad shape," said Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "One of two individuals had some bad bruises. One smuggler had been beating on them. They were upset that (the group) wasn't moving faster."
The two, ages 25 and 34, said the others - including children and at least one pregnant woman - could be dying of thirst in the 100-degree heat.
The Navy had been advised of the dangerous hide-and-seek game Tuesday and was not firing at the range.
Agents never found the others but discovered a second group of 32 illegal immigrants whose van had broken down near Blythe.
"This area has gotten to be a big problem," said Strassberger. "When they come across in the eastern desert and if they get into the bombing range, there are no check points. They run the risk of being bombed, but they've got a pretty clear shot if they don't."
The two men, who were treated for dehydration before returning to the mountains with rescuers, said their group left the border Saturday and had been traveling without food or water since.
People in the group paid $1,000 each to be led into the United States, the two men told agents.
Last week, U.S. agents captured 166 immigrants near the Chocolate Mountains Gunnery Range in the Southern California desert, close to the Arizona line.
San Diego was long the preferred place to sneak across the 2,000-mile Mexican border, until four years ago when "Operation Gatekeeper" increased the number of Border Patrol agents from 800 to about 2,300.
San Diego dropped from 43 percent of border apprehensions nationwide to 20 percent, but more easterly areas are now taking up the slack, and immigrants are taking increasing risks.
Under mounting pressure from human rights organizations, the United States and Mexico announced this month they would take steps to warn of border-crossing dangers, improve search-and-rescue capabilities and notify relatives in the event of deaths.