At least 13 Salvadorans died in the broiling sun this weekend after they were abandoned by a smuggler and left to wander in a remote desert region near the Mexican border.
Thirteen others who survived the three-day ordeal were brought to a local hospital where they were treated for severe dehydration and heat prostration.
"They beg for water, when they see us coming," said Franklin Wallace, superintendent of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where searchers were removing bodies today. The searchers, on foot, horseback, helicopters and airplane, combed the 500-square-mile underbrush of the national monument area, located near the small monument area, located near the small mining community of Ajo, looking for other members of the group.
As many as 45 Salvadorans -- including an infant -- were believed to have crossed the desert border Friday night into southen Arizona. Authorities believe some may have returned to Mexico.
Several brought to New Cornelia Hospital in Ajo for treatment carried passports from El Salvador but did not have entry papers for the United States, hospital spokesman Bill Jones said.
Authorities stopped the search for additional survivors late tonight. Wallace said nine of the 13 found dead were women, some as young as 18.
The search was expected to resume Monday morning "on a low-profile basis," Wallace said.
"I don't think we're going to find any more survivors," he added.
Hospital physician Joseph Rustick said today some of the Salvadorans drank aftershave lotion, deodorant and urine in an effort to slake their thirst.
"Some of them managed to drink the moisture from cactus and they were the smart ones," he said.
Hospital spokesman Jones said of 13 survivors, four women and one man remained hospitalized tonight. Three survivors did not need treatment and five others who entered the hospital over the weekend have been released.
"I think they're recoupling very well. They are very hardy people," Jones said.
"I understand that a lot of the men gave up their water to the women and children. That's what one of them said," he added.
The hospital released the survivors to Border Patrol officials who brought them to a county jail in Ajo.
He said some of those treated were suffering from exposure and dehydration and had "cactus in their feet" but on the whole were "very healthy people."
According to accounts pieced together by Wallace, sheriff's deputies and U.S. Border Patrol agents, the group, led by at least one smuggler, crossed the border Friday night. Once over the border fence and onto the grounds of the national monument, the Salvadorans were deserted by the smuggler. The group wandered through the desert underbrush for at least 12 hours before one woman made her way to state highway 85 and flagged down a passing motorist, who informed the Border Patrol. Many members of the group were said to be in their mid-20s.
One Border Patrol agent said the grup was robbed of jewelry, and money before being left in the desert. But these reports could not be confirmed because reporters were not allowed to question the Salvadorans.
Four of the 13 hospitalized were released today to officials of the Border Patrol and Pima County sheriff's department, Jones said. The four were booked into a county jail. It is expected that they will be held for five days before being deported.
Officials said they had not questioned the survivors at length.
"The people we are trying to question have really been through the mill and they're not ready to answer questions," said Wallace. "They're dazed and confused. They were taken out in the desert and dropped without any water and without any food and without any sense of direction or anything else."
Ten of the bodies found today were "all close together" in scrub brush, Wallace said. "They were all trying to find shade under those bushes, two under one bush and three under another. But those bushes really aren't big enough."
Some of the survivors were near death when removed by helicopter from the monument grounds. Wallace added.
"Some of the people, all they could say is water.' Their eyes were rolled back in their heads, their tongues were swollen. They were in bad shape," Wallace said.
Temperatures in the area have reached 110 degrees in the last several days. However, some members of the rescue mission reported ground temperatures above 120 degrees.
Authorities said that under normal circumstances the aliens would be held for several days and then returned to their country. But Border Patrol officials said they planned to question some of the survivors by Monday evening.
"If there's any possibility of learning the identity of the smugglers and developing a prosecution based on that, then I would think the people might well be kept in the country as material witnesses." U.S. Attorney Michael Hawkins said.
"If there's a provable case against that individual I can assure you it would be a case we would prosecute."
"This is just taking bodies out, taking their money and letting them die." Wallace said. "They call these people [the smugglers] coyotes. When the coyote leaves the people are on their own."
Wallace said that bodies of undocumented aliens have been found on the grounds of the national monument in past years. "In one year's time they found 13 or 14 bodies out there. Some were out there for months. Some were new."
"We've found a few bodies in the past," he said, "but nothing of this magnitude."