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Bodies Immigrants Return Home

May 31, 2001

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ATZALAN, Mexico (AP) _ Men who went north to find a better life returned home Thursday, their simple, cloth-covered coffins carried in a midnight caravan up to their impoverished mountain villages.

Entire communities turned out before dawn to meet the coffins holding sons, brothers and friends who died in the furnace-like Arizona desert last week while trying to evade the U.S. Border Patrol.

``We are not wanderers here; here, we feel our blood,″ said Melquiades Mendez Cortes, a town councilman who accompanied the coffins.

Twelve of the 14 who died came from the southern state of Veracruz. Seven were from villages scattered in the lush coffee country around this county seat about 40 miles west of the port of Veracruz.

The state government chartered a plane that carried the 12 coffins back to Veracruz on Wednesday night. Then the coffins were unloaded and brought home in caravans whose headlights cut a path up the winding roads to the mountains.

Thursday was a day for grieving. Friends and relatives brought flowers to the coffins, and came to talk about and remember the dead. For most, the funerals were scheduled for Friday.

For many, there was frustration both at being forced by poverty to try to cross the border, and at the deadly difficulties imposed on those who try.

``Why don’t they treat us like human beings?″ Mendez asked.

On Wednesday, an Arizona grand jury indicted Jesus Lopez Ramos, allegedly the guide who abandoned the men in the desert, on 25 counts of smuggling _ for each of the 14 immigrants who died and for 11 others who survived.

The would-be immigrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Arizona on May 19, drove for about 90 minutes, then set out on foot.

Told they would have to walk only a short way to a highway, instead they faced 70 miles known as ``The Devil’s Path″ and temperatures of up to 115 degrees.

Four days later, U.S. Border Patrol officers began finding the survivors and the dead. It was the deadliest crossing at the border since 1987, when 18 Mexican men died in a locked railroad boxcar near Sierra Blanca, Texas.

``We should tell everybody in Mexico, the border is a dangerous place. Think about it, please think hard about it,″ said President Vicente Fox’s top adviser on immigrant affairs, Juan Hernandez.

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