A Border Patrol agent said today that most of the 13 Salvadoran aliens who died of dehydration and exposure in the Arizona desert near the Mexican border would have survived if three members of the group intercepted early Friday had admitted that others were wandering in the area.
Fourteen Salvadorans survived the weekend ordeal; three remain hospitalized.
"They flat-out lied," said Earl Scott, agent in charge of the Ajo, Ariz., Border Patrol station. "They insisted there was no one else when we asked them if there was anyone else out there. Repeatedly, they insisted 'No, we're the only ones.'
"If they had told us the truth we would have been in on them a day earlier. We would have saved most of them."
Three of the dead were found Saturday evening and the others Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, Border Patrol officials said three smugglers -- believed to be Mexican nationals -- arranged to have the group brought into the United States.
Scott said that after talking to those who survived, he is hopeful of identifying the smugglers.
The Mexican government will be asked to join an investigation that could lead to manslaughter charges.
Authorities spent most of today interviewing the 14 survivors, and releasing new information about them.
Many were said to be well-dressed and middle-class, and between 25 and 35. One man had $4,000 on him, authorities said.
"Some of the women are saying the 'coyotes' -- the guides -- took their watches, their jewelry, their money away from them," Scott said.
"One or two said there were rapes involved."
Scott said that as the Salvadorans wandered through the scorching desert, "there was a struggle for the water . . . [They were] drinking the urine and even fighting" over it.
Scott said the group crossed the border into the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument area on Thursday night.
Border Patrol agents intercepted three male members of the party Friday night on a state highway after the group had been abandoned without water or directions.
"We questioned them about whether there were any others out there and they denied it," Scott said. "If they had told us the truth, then we would have been on it early Saturday morning and saved most of them."
A woman spotted by a motorist Saturday afternoon on the state road admitted that other Salvadorans were wandering in the desert, launching the search.
Scott said that the three men might have lied because they feared retribution from the smugglers.
Authorities said about 45 Salvadorans were contacted by an unidentified man who promised to arrange entry into the United States for $1,200 per adult and $1,000 per child.
The group was being driven by bus en route to Los Angeles. Somewhere along the route -- perhaps near the Mexican border -- about a dozen passengers disembarked, officials said.
These people -- originally feared dead -- turned up today in San Luis, a Mexican border town.
The remaining passengers were driven closer to the border and told they would be escorted through the desert. But after their trek began, they were abandoned by their guides.
Although the search continued today, Park Superintendent Franklin Wallace said agents did not expect to find any more survivors in the 516-square-mile park.
"We're just continuing the search on the off chance there are some more out there," assistant Border Patrol chief Dale Musegades said in Tucson.
"We feel sure there's no one left alive out there."