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San Antonio deaths highlight the dangers people face crossing the border illegally

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The sweltering 18-wheeler where more than 50 people died earlier this week in San Antonio is just one reminder of the dangers people can face when they cross the border. But a huge number of migrants are still trying. And as KTEP's Angela Kocherga reports from El Paso, many don't make it.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Along this stretch of border, the dangers for migrants are on display every step of the way. I'm riding with Border Patrol Agent Orlando Marrero on the edge of El Paso County. It's full of thorny mesquite and desert scrub brush, and some migrants hike over a mountain that we see out the window under the cover of darkness.

ORLANDO MARRERO: And they can get easily injured - since low visibility, you won't be able to see if there's a cliff, if there's a wash.

KOCHERGA: And during the day, the baking heat often hits triple digits, and that can make even a twisted ankle deadly. Other obstacles are man-made, including a border fence that's 30 feet high in some places. Marrero says smugglers push migrants to use makeshift ladders to climb up.

MARRERO: Once a migrant is at the top of the border barrier, take the ladder away from them. They'll tell them to either slide down like a fireman or Spider-Man or stuff like that - or jump.

KOCHERGA: In the El Paso area alone, hospitals have treated at least a wall injury a day for the last two years. Some die. Border Patrol won't release the number of deaths border-wide. In El Paso, most of the recent deaths are drownings in irrigation canals like this one that run along the border fence on the U.S. side. Smugglers lure migrants in, saying it's shallow, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GLORIA CHAVEZ: The currents in the water canals are incredibly strong and pose a threat to any that enter.

KOCHERGA: Gloria Chavez is the Border Patrol chief in El Paso. At a press conference earlier this week, she warned people about the dangers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

CHAVEZ: The canals are self-cleaning and are designed to pull down any debris that goes into those waters.

KOCHERGA: Debris - or the 15 migrants who drowned recently, most this month. Also at the press conference, Mexico's deputy consul general in El Paso, Ricardo Hernandez - he urged people not to put their lives in the hands of smugglers. This was just hours before dozens of migrants were found dead in the semi-truck in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RICARDO HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Hernandez told Mexicans to remember their families are waiting at home and not to risk it. Yet, despite the warnings, they do.

(CROSSTALK)

KOCHERGA: During our ride-along, Border Patrol agents come across two women and a man walking in the thorny brush. Agents on this stretch of the border alone pick up a thousand migrants a day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: One of the women, who would not give her name, said they told her it would not be easy, but she dared to cross anyway for a painting job waiting for her in Texas. She's a mom of four from Mexico City. A man from Durango, Mexico, says he wants to join his wife and son in California and has a construction job lined up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: If he makes it, he says. The labor shortage in the U.S. and violence in some parts of Mexico are driving more Mexicans north again. Border Patrol recorded more than 1.5 million apprehensions border-wide from October through May. That's on pace to break last year's record. Smuggling organizations are cashing in, says Border Patrol agent Carlos Rivera.

CARLOS RIVERA: It's just a matter of treating them as a commodity and how much money they can get out of it.

KOCHERGA: Smugglers charge each person thousands of dollars, but some pay with their lives. For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in El Paso.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emmy winning multimedia journalist Angela Kocherga is news director with KTEP and Borderzine. She is also multimedia editor with ElPasoMatters.org, an independent news organization.