American Renaissance

Yuma Desert Deaths Suit Moving Through Court

The wrongful-death case is filed in federal court on behalf of families of 11 of 14 illegal immigrants who died three years ago.

Luke Turf, Tucson Citizen, May 22

A $42 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the U.S. government is slowly moving forward three years after 14 illegal immigrants were found dead in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, west of Tucson.

James Metcalf of Yuma is the attorney representing the families of the dead.

He has begun pretrial preparations for the case surrounding the Department of the Interior’s refusal to let a Tucson-based human rights group put water stations in the federally managed refuge, which shares 56 miles of border with Mexico, he said.

Temperature hit 115 degrees when the group was found May 23, 2001. The suit, filed in U.S District Court in Arizona in May 2003, is on behalf of families of 11 of the dead.

Metcalf said the suit blames the deaths on the denial of a specific request for water stations in an area where the water could have saved the immigrants.

“It’s not like this opens the floodgates (for lawsuits) to every possible deceased person,” Metcalf said.

At least 350 immigrants have died while crossing illegally through Arizona since the Yuma 14, as they’ve become known, were found.

Metcalf, a former attorney for the Border Patrol and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, also blamed the deaths on what he describes as the government’s funneling of immigrants out of urban areas and into dangerous deserts.

Cabeza Prieta is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency’s regional chief, Domenick Ciccone, said pending litigation prevents him from saying why the water stations requested by Humane Borders were denied.

“The area where the deaths occurred, as far as our records show, there was not a request to put the water there,” Ciccone said.

Robin Hoover is the president of Humane Borders, the group that maintains 42 water stations in U.S. deserts north of the border. Hoover said more than 900 gallons of water were consumed by immigrants from his stations in one recent week.

Hoover said the requested location of the water stations was within 3/4-mile of the trail the immigrants took and that the water could have saved their lives. It was denied about one month before the deaths, he said.

“You don’t need water where you die; you need water before you get in such distress,” Hoover said.

The group’s guide, Jesus Lopez-Ramos, 21, of Guadalajara, Mexico, was sentenced by a federal judge in Phoenix to 16 years in prison in February 2002.

An affidavit in support of extraditing Evodio “El Negro” Manilla-Cabrera from Mexico was entered in September 2001. He’s accused of conspiring with others in forming the alleged smuggling organization that brought the group across.

Investigators said the ring’s reach extended to central Florida, where two men were supposed to put the immigrants to work at farms.

Francisco Vazquez-Torres of Lake Placid-based Vazquez Harvesting was sentenced in connection with the case to 78 months in prison and 60 months of supervised probation for conspiracy to bring aliens into the United States in 2003.

Vazquez-Torres’ foreman, Joel Viveros-Flores, was sentenced to 36 months in prison to be followed by 36 months of supervised release.