The smugglers told the first dozen illegal immigrants to lie down on the floor of the van. Then they told the second dozen or so to lie on top of them and stay down.
It’s a common trick among smugglers. Keep the human cargo below the windows and out of sight.
Only this time, in Friday’s stifling 102-degree heat, it had tragic consequences.
Before long, two of the unlucky men on the bottom would be dead.
Luis Latorre, 34, of Hidalgo, Mexico, was one of them, officials said.
He and his father had crossed the border on foot with the group Wednesday near Sasabe, Son., south of Three Points, a Mexican Consulate official said. They walked across the desert until Friday, when temperatures hit 100 for the first time this year, then boarded the van they hoped would carry them to California.
When Latorre became ill, likely from a combination of dehydration, exhaustion and lack of oxygen, the driver forced him and his father, who was not identified, out of the van in a farm field southwest of Eloy, said Pinal County Sheriff’s Office homicide Detective Dave Hausman.
By the time his father flagged down help around 9:30 Friday night near the intersection of Harmon and Sunland Gin roads, Latorre had died, Hausman said. Meanwhile, authorities had already responded to calls about another dead body around 20 miles northeast.
Police believe another passenger died in the van shortly after Latorre and his father were thrown off, Hausman said. The driver dumped his body and belongings on the side of the road near the intersection of Tweedy Road and Selma Highway, east of Casa Grande, he said.
Authorities linked the two cases when they interviewed Latorre’s father, who was admitted to Casa Grande Regional Medical Center. The elder Latorre was suffering from dehydration, exhaustion and blistered feet and is in stable condition, said Alejandro Ramos, a spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in Tucson. Latorre and his father, like others in the group, came from Hidalgo, Mexico, Ramos said.
The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office will perform autopsies on the two men this week, Chief Examiner Bruce Parks said.
In an unrelated incident, two U.S. Border Patrol agents on all-terrain vehicles found the body of an illegal immigrant Saturday morning 16 miles north and eight miles east of Sasabe. The man was 20 to 25 years old and came from Puebla, Mexico, Border Patrol spokesman Gus Soto said.
It was the first heat-related cluster of deaths in what the National Weather Service expects to be a hotter-than-average year.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to deal with a lot more of these deaths in the summer,” said Pinal County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Ray Roerdink.
Both the Pima County medical examiner and the Mexican Consulate report that illegal immigrant deaths this year have kept pace with last year. The Medical Examiner’s Office has counted around 55 deaths, and the consulate has counted 41.
The Border Patrol, which released figures only through the end of April, has recorded a 15 percent decrease in deaths this year, down to 60 for fiscal 2007 from 71 in fiscal 2006. Fiscal 2007 began Oct. 1, 2006.
The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, along with officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is investigating solid leads in the case, Hausman said without elaborating.
Smugglers adjust their methods to escape detection, Hausman said. Smugglers know, for example, that police look for overloaded vehicles leaning in the back, so they fix rear axles to make the vehicle ride level, he said.