August 15, 2008

Laguna Salada, a death trap during the hot summer months

By Mariana Martínez

The majestic desert in Baja California has been the scene of a tragedy, once again.

In recent weeks, the area known as Laguna Salada (Salt Lagoon) between Tecate and Mexicali has been the death scene of a 10 year-old boy and a young explorer; 70 people have been rescued and a 19 year-old boy riding a motorcycle is still missing.

On July 31, authorities found the body of 28 year-old Daniel Méndez Rodríguez, who died of dehydration while trying to cross the Salted Lagoon with two of his friends. The young man died after a 25 kilometer walk, his friends kept walking to bring help, but it wasn’t until two days later, that his body was found.

Three days later, 70 people were rescued by Baja California authorities, in an especially arid and mountainous area of the dry Lagoon called the Picachitos Canyon. The fatal victim was José David Onti-veros Triana; he was just ten years old and had gone to the area as part of a survival trail by a survival and discipline civilian group called Pentatlón Universitario Militarizado.

Fourty three people participated in the trail, 26 of them were children. When adults started to notice children were dehydrating they radioed for help, but the rescue team was too late to save José David.

According to the state’s Civil Protection Director Alfredo Escobedo Ortiz, amongst those who where rescued, at least seven had severe dehydration.

Some of the members of the team told rescuers they were planning to go to the Agua Grande Waterfalls, right in the Picachitos Canyon, but according to Escobedo, the waterfalls are dry during the summer season, an observation that confirmed the lack of proper preparation from the team leaders.

Most of the kids where airlifted by a rescue helicopter, along with the body of their young mate, who had died around noon that same day, while the adults were taken by land to local hospitals.

This is not the first time the group that prides themselves on “building character by discipline” has put the lives of children in danger.

On July 23, 2001, command-er Farid Pérez Rodríguez (who is still listed as the leader on their website), lead a team of 24 kids, ages 9 to 21 into the desert, they were all rescued safe and sound by the Red Cross, the “Aguiluchos” team and government officials.

After the incident, Pérez Rodríguez denied they were rescued, and said this was just part of the “education” his institution provides, but then Civil Protection director, Mario Rodríguez, said authorities did in fact regard it as a rescue.

Baja California governor, José Guadalupe Osuna Millán, expressed his condolences to the family and ordered an immediate investigation into the circumstances of the child’s death as well as into the Pentatlón Militarizado organization.

Currently, three of the expedition leaders have been arrested and could be charged with imprudent manslaughter. The three men arrested are Saris Pérez, Enrique Macías and Fernando Olvera, all of them are out on 100,000 pesos bail.

The governor, added that in Mexicali people respect the desert, specially the Salted Lagoon area, where Mexican soldiers on duty and workers from the water authority have also lost their lives.

“It is scorching heat, heat that can make anyone take a wrong turn. Going there to explore in the middle of summer is nothing short of a mistake,” said the governor.

The same day the kids were rescued, authorities and search teams also located a group of 18 immigrants who were brought to safety, and a few hours later, a second group with 17 immigrants, including two pregnant women, were found after they lost their way trying to cross the Rumorosa by foot.

Authorities said all 35 immigrants where dehydrated and were sent to local hospitals for stabilization.

Meanwhile, 19 year-old José Emmanuel Jiménez Ortega, remains missing, after going to the desert, just a mile South of the Tijuana Highway. They were motorcycle riding, when according to his friends they lost sight of him.

There was an aerial search on Monday, with planes and helicopters, while on the ground, fourwheelers covered a large area but the boy’s motorcycle was not found.

On Tuesday night, the rescue was called off.

“During the summer season, temperatures can rise to 50 degrees celsius, that presents a serious risk for anyone” said Escobedo, who is asking tourists, immigrants and explorers to stay away from the desert in what is the deadliest season of the year.

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