Team graduates assigned to Valley


August 03, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

To enhance safety along the border, the U.S. Border Patrol El Centro sector will be the home to a specialized group of agents whose primary focus will be search and rescue.

Thirty-two agents, trained in search and rescue, graduated today in San Diego and became part of the Border Patrol's Search Trauma and Rescue team.

Border Patrol officials said 16 of those agents will be based in the Imperial Valley. The rest will be in Yuma, Del Rio and Marfa, Texas.

El Centro Sector Chief Kenneth Stitt said the 16 agents who will serve in the Valley were already based in the local sector.


Each was specially picked to take part in a six-week training program to qualify for the BORSTAR team.

Stitt said after today's graduation, the agents will return to the Valley with the specialized skills related to search and rescue.

Gustavo De La Viña, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, told those gathered at the graduation, "The Border Patrol has always recognized that protecting the border includes an obligation to protect lives.

"With the graduation of these agents, we are better prepared to meet this obligation," De La Viña said.

Stitt said the effort to protect the lives of those trying to cross the border illegally is not new to the El Centro sector.

He said the sector already has a desert search and rescue team, but its focus is divided between rescue and apprehension efforts.

The BORSTAR agents will concentrate on search and rescue. The agents have received trauma medical training and training in border searches and land navigation. They have gained skills in mountain climbing and rappelling that will help them reach the sick or injured in the desert.

The local BORSTAR team also will receive training in swift-water rescue.

Stitt said the agents in the team will be ready to respond to anyone in need of aid, whether undocumented immigrants, fellow agents or community members.

Border Patrol officials have said BORSTAR teams have been a success where they already are in operation, in San Diego and Tucson.

One example of BORSTAR's efforts was seen in the San Diego area when team members rappelled from a helicopter into a remote mountain area to save an immigrant with a broken leg.

The decision to expand the search and rescue teams into the El Centro sector and other communities was the result of recent meetings between U.S. and Mexican officials.

Stitt said BORSTAR is one element of the Border Safety Initiative, started three years ago to educate the public about the dangers of crossing the border illegally.

As part of the initiative, U.S. and Mexican authorities have agreed to work more closely on training to increase border safety.

The initiative will lead to new resources being supplied to the Imperial Valley and has led the designation of the New River and All-American Canal as high-risk zones for illegal immigration.

Since the start of the initiative, agents have rescued some 4,400 migrants from life-threatening situations and others from less serious yet still dangerous situations.

The focus on border safety has been highlighted by the recent visit of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to communities along the border, including the Imperial Valley.

President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox are planning to meet in September to discuss border policies.

The border gained national attention in recent months when 14 undocumented immigrants in Arizona died after smugglers led them across the border.

In recent weeks there have been a number of deaths in the Imperial Valley, including four people who died in the New River. Their bodies were all found last weekend.

Stitt said he hopes border enforcement efforts will lessen the need for a specialized group of agents for search and rescue efforts. However, he said that is not reality at this time.

"We are trying to address the reality of the present," he said, adding the reality is people are going to continue to cross the border illegally.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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