Early in his career with the U.S. Border Patrol, Gustavo De La Vina came across a scene that would still haunt him more than two decades later.

While patrolling near the Texas border town of Eagle Pass in the early 1970s, he came across the campsite of a group of illegal border-crossers. Hidden in the brush was the body of a boy. He had apparently been robbed, possibly by smugglers who led the group across the border.

"He couldn't have been more than 12 or 13 years old," De La Vina recalled. "They cut his throat." The boy was never identified, and no one was ever charged with his murder.

"There are a lot of sad stories like that," he said. Since taking over as chief of the Border Patrol last year, De La Vina, 59, has worked to promote a border safety initiative aimed at reducing fatalities along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border--both from violence at the hands of smugglers or bandits and from exposure or accidents that occur while illegal crossers are trying to sneak into the United States. Such crossings break the law, says the soft-spoken former schoolteacher, but the penalty "should not be a death sentence."

The initiative, subject of a conference of U.S. and Mexican officials last week in San Diego, reflects the compassion that De La Vina wants the Border Patrol to embody along with its enforcement mission. In addition to identifying the most dangerous crossing points and putting up warning signs, Border Patrol agents are taking on search-and-rescue roles when illegal crossers venture into deserts or mountains without adequate water, food or protection from the elements.

"They're not totally aware of all the hazards they're confronted with," De La Vina said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "People are dying out there in the summer months. . ."

Critics of U.S. immigration controls attribute some of the deaths to another policy that De La Vina has helped to implement. Operation Gatekeeper was intended to divert illegal crossings away from urban areas. The idea was to deter illegal immigration by making it more difficult to cross the border. But crossings also became more dangerous as people were pushed into much rougher terrain.

The first Mexican American to head the Border Patrol and the highest-ranking Hispanic in federal law enforcement, De La Vina presides over an agency that has gone from fewer than 3,000 agents when he started to an increasingly high-tech, well-staffed operation. Infused with cash from a Congress alarmed by the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs across the southwestern border, the arm of the Immigration and Naturalization Service is in the midst of a technological and personnel buildup, acquiring an array of new equipment and boosting its strength to more than 8,000 agents.

One of De La Vina's main challenges these days is managing the agency's unprecedented growth.

"We have been given the tools todo our job," he said. "Now it's time to put the strategy, the tools, the equipment, the personnel to work in bringing good levels of control across the southwest border."

Born and raised in Edinburg, Tex., De La Vina taught physical education in elementary schools for seven years. He joined the Border Patrol in 1970 to pursue an interest in federal law enforcement and was assigned to Eagle Pass on the Rio Grande. He held a number of different jobs, including positions as a Spanish teacher at the Border Patrol Academy and as an anti-smuggling agent before becoming director of the INS western region in 1995. De La Vina took over as chief of the Border Patrol in January 1998.

In his low-key way, De La Vina said it "felt good" to be the first Hispanic chief of the patrol, but that he prefers to "stand on my qualifications." The appointment, he said, "shows the fairness of the system."

A longtime friend and former agent, Silvestre Reyes, now a Democratic congressman from Texas, calls the deep-voiced, chain-smoking Border Patrol chief a "stereotypical Texan"--never without his cowboy boots and hat.

"I once saw Gus on the beach in swimming trunks with his boots on," Reyes said. When he asked his friend why he was wearing boots, Reyes recalled, De La Vina replied simply, "Because the sand is hot."

In discussing the evolution of the border situation over the years, De La Vina betrays a certain nostalgia for the simpler time two decades ago, when there were fewer illegal crossers, encounters with drug runners were rare and apprehensions generally followed an unwritten code. The crossers then were mostly farmhands and "mature" heads of households, he said.

When caught, "there was almost an understanding," De La Vina said. "They would greet us. We would greet them. . . . We'd often share our lunches."

Now, "the whole profile has changed," he said. The illegal crossers tend to be younger, and they often are led by professional smugglers who have much to lose if apprehended.

"It's more dangerous," De La Vina said, "not only for the entrants but for the agents."

Players

Gustavo De La Vina

Title: Chief, U.S. Border Patrol.

Age: 59.

Education: Bachelor of arts degree, Pan American University, Edinburg, Tex.

Family: Married, six grown children.

Previous jobs: Physical education teacher; Border Patrol agent in Eagle Pass, Tex.; chief of Border Patrol Academy in Glynco, Ga.; chief of Border Patrol's San Diego sector; director of INS Western Region.

Hobbies: Traveling.

On the Border Patrol's safety initiative: "People are dying out there in the summer months, primarily from going through the desert. It's so unnecessary."

CAPTION: ON THE BORDER (This chart was not available)

CAPTION: Gustavo De La Vina said the penalty for crossing the U.S. border illegally "should not be a death sentence."