To Dudley Braesicke, a trained Border Patrol tracker here, the dozen sets of footprints crossing this white dusty road are about as fresh as they come. Just from sheer experience, he can tell that the tracks are only a few hours old, because the dust inside them hasn't been bleached yet by the morning sun. He also knows they belong to illegal Mexican immigrants, and that if he and his crew don't find them shortly on their northward trek, they could easily succumb to the heat.
"You find them anywhere from totally exhausted to being all right," says Mr. Braesicke, head of the brush walkers, a crew of agents specially trained in tracking aliens into the thorny west Texas terrain. "On days like this, they usually stop around noon and lay up through the heat of the day ... but some of the younger ones just keep going. That's when it gets dangerous."
All along the Southern border, from the lower Rio Grande Valley to the Pacific Ocean, Border Patrol officers are increasingly finding themselves in the position of not only apprehending illegal aliens, but saving them as well.
Crossing this border has always been dangerous, but this year's heat wave has taken an especially grisly toll: Since May, there have been at least 51 heat-related deaths in Texas alone, up from nine last year.
"I think we're facing a much more serious situation," says David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol's central section, which extends from New Mexico to the Texas Gulf Coast and on up to North Dakota and Montana. "In past years, we had immigrants crossing but they were using old familiar terrain. They had windmills and stock tanks filled with water to rely on. This year, because of the extended dry period, those tanks and windmills just don't have water."
To meet the need, the Border Patrol and its parent agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, have launched a massive public-relations initiative called Operation Lifesaver. Television and radio ads educate the public in the US on what to do if they spot someone in distress. In addition, Mexican TV stations are carrying ads that warn people about the dangers of the heat and the terrain.
Here in the Del Rio sector, where Bracketville is located, Border Patrol officers have started carrying extra water and medical supplies for those aliens they find in distress. Some agents say the higher death rate may be a sign of not just the heat, but also how effective the Border Patrol has become in other areas, through such efforts as Operation Rio Grande in South Texas and Operation Hold the Line in El Paso. With those better-manned areas effectively under control, Del Rio and Laredo have become the illegal entry of choice, and apprehensions in Del Rio are up nearly 20 percent over last year.
"Operations in other areas are working, and they're diverting the flow this way," says Paul Berg, the tall silver-haired chief patrol officer for the Del Rio sector. "So, if you couple that with the heat, it's a ticket for death. We're just trying to keep people alive for the next eight weeks. Maybe the advertisements will slow them up, and if not, at least they will educate them to the challenges that they face."
Out among the purple sage, huisache, and mesquite of the Perdido Ranch, Braesicke's fellow officers have their work cut out for them. Up in the sky, a small plane is looking for the aliens among the dense brush. On the ground, rookie agent Lee Edwards is using much more ancient techniques, little changed from the days of the hunter-gatherers. He has already followed the group of 12 for more than three miles, occasionally losing the trail in rocky spots. In their trucks, Braesicke and another agent drive on the ranch roads ahead, looking for signs of the group crossing into the next ranch.
"The tracks still look pretty good," says Officer Edwards, sweating profusely after a few-miles walk in the brush and carrying a small cooler of ice water. "It's a slow go, but I love it."
But a good set of prints does not always foretell eventual success, says Braesicke.
"I've seen tracks that to get them any better, I'd have to be in front of them, and I still didn't catch them," he says, pausing for a swig of water. "Where they're heading right now, it gets real tough, so hopefully when they get to that fence, they'll turn east."
By 1 p.m., the trail has gone cold again. Edwards has found signs of a campsite nearby. A plastic bag of flautas sits under a tree, and an army of ants is just starting to devour them. But from there, the tracks have just plain stopped. By now, the heat is oppressive, in excess of 105 degrees.
Braesicke, too, is confused. Usually grass lies down in the direction of where a person is walking, but Braesicke sighs, "this stuff is laying about every which way." In the end, he chooses a direction and walks in it. Sure enough, within 50 yards of the flautas, Braesicke finds three aliens sitting under a tree. They are smiling.
"Where's the rest of your group?" Braesicke asks in Spanish, and the Mexicans tell of another dozen migrants scattered under the mesquite trees. They had scattered when they heard the plane. Their guide and swifter migrants have left them behind.
"All that way, Lee," Braesicke chuckles in sympathy with the agent who has trailed the group 3.5 miles just to have his boss find them.
Edwards laughs, "I know."
With the help of a helicopter pilot, the brush walkers slowly gather up the remaining 12 stragglers, more than four hours after the initial tracks were found. Some migrants had to be called out of the thorny brush by name, letting them know that the rest of the group - and the last supply of fresh water - would be leaving soon without them. After giving the migrants water, the crew trucks them back to the base for interrogation, and eventually, deportation.
Jos Santos Jimenez, dressed in jeans, a dress shirt, and a red baseball cap, says his group was running out of water. (The water in their bottles is a yellowish color, likely from a stagnant pond.) But he feels that men in this group had no choice but to cross into the US in search of work.
"It hasn't rained in Mexico for months, so we haven't worked," says Mr. Santos, an agricultural worker from the village of Ebano. He knew about the heat in Texas, but felt that the risk was worth it.
Another migrant, Lorenzo Ponce Landaverde, says the heat took him by surprise.
"I didn't know it was going to be this hot," says the thin youth, wearing grungy jeans and a black long-sleeved flannel shirt more suitable for the mountains around San Luis Potosi, where he lives. "I wouldn't have come if I'd known."
Other migrants in this situation have not been so fortunate.
Just last week, a group of three aliens from northern Mexico got separated from their group 20 miles north of Bracketville. One of the three started showing signs of exhaustion, pausing every few minutes to rest. "He started talking incoherently and we could not understand him," said a companion in a sworn statement. "I tried to give him water, but he jumped up and started to run off.... He kept pointing to the spot where he had been seated and said: 'They're trying to get me.' This is when we realized he was hallucinating."
Within minutes, the migrant had died, becoming another sad summer statistic.
In the end, Braesicke says, there's only so much a Border Patrol officer can do. "Some of them will just hide out in the brush, even if they are out of water," he says, removing his straw Stetson to mop his brow. "In those cases, our hands are tied."