In Spanish, it’s called Río Bravo, which means “fierce river.” It’s the 1,896-mile-long Rio Grande river that separates the United States from Mexico.
For years, it has been used by migrants to illegally cross into the US. But a series of drownings over the past few months has activists in the area concerned. They attribute the deaths to heightened border security that has led some migrants to take up dangerous routes.
Three bodies were found in the river last Sunday, according to Mexico’s National Immigration Institute. Local news media reported that six migrants drowned in less than 24 hours while trying to cross the river.
“The current doesn’t take you where you want to go,” said José Loya, a migrant from Venezuela who recently made the crossing.
During his journey, he went through six countries across Central America and Mexico. He said that he was robbed, kidnapped and extorted before he was able to reach the Eagle Pass river crossing in South Texas. The water seemed to be shallow at the beginning, he said, but then it surprised him when it became 8 feet deep.
“For the first time, I thought about turning back, it was very scary,” he said. “To survive, you have to know how to swim and how to control your nerves.”
Loya made it safely into Texas, and is now applying for asylum from there. Since the Trump-era Title 42 legislation has been imposed, allowing the US to turn away migrants at the US southern border, there are no legal pathways to applying from outside of the country.
Migrants who attempt to cross the river are not always aware of the dangers they may encounter, said Eddie Corrales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center.
Corrales said that there are no warnings for water being released from Falcon Dam, an earthen embankment dam on the Rio Grande located between Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
“It creates a very treacherous undertow, and it can be totally unexpected,” he said.
That was the tragedy for Nicaraguan journalist Calixto Rojas, who fled his country in 2018. In a letter he wrote to Radio Dario, where he used to work as a radio host, he said that he was threatened by the government of President Daniel Ortega after attending an opposition protest. He then moved to Belize, where he said he struggled financially. In April, he decided to embark on a trip to the United States by land.
A month ago, Rojas tried to swim across the Rio Grande. In a video recorded by a Fox News reporter, Rojas is seen struggling to tread water. His friend is nearby, holding onto a cement pillar in the middle of the river, screaming for help.
Eventually, Rojas goes under, and does not come back up. He was swept down the waterway, and his body was found near an islet further down the river.
Rojas’ death was witnessed by dozens of people, including Mexican and US border officials who were at the scene. But they were instructed not to attempt any rescues because it came after a member of the National Guard lost his life in the same stretch of river while trying to pull a woman from the water just nine days prior.
The recent news of people drowning in the Rio Grande has encouraged a professional swimmer in Nicaragua to offer a public service.
Mario Orozco owns a swimming school in the city of Estelí, and he started teaching free lessons to Nicaraguans planning to cross the Rio Grande.
“We took [up] the initiative in March, after several of my friends died while trying to cross the river. This was a tragedy, so I decided to teach people how to swim in open waters.”
“We took [up] the initiative in March after several of my friends died while trying to cross the river,” he said. “This was a tragedy, so I decided to teach people how to swim in open waters.”
Orozco has said that he doesn't encourage people to attempt crossing into the US, but he wants to help them survive if they do decide to try.
The crossing can be between 300 to 600 feet wide. The most popular starting point is Piedras Negras, right across the Eagle Pass, said Valeria Wheeler, who runs the Mission Border Hope shelter in the area.
Wheeler said that her shelter is now welcoming 500 people a day, compared to around 30 people before the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said that she has helped three families so far this year who have lost a loved one to drowning.
“They don't even have the time to grieve."
“They don't even have the time to grieve because they have to go and recognize the body of their family member, go to the funeral home to make the arrangements, so they can take the remains with them,” Wheeler said. “This can be expensive and traumatic.”
Wheeler said it is hard to know how many people lost their lives to drowning in the river: “Many bodies are never recovered.”
A spokesperson with the US Customs and Border Protection said that they are working to publish official numbers of rescues in the Rio Grande this year.
The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) recorded 1,248 migrants dead or missing in the Americas in 2021. This is the highest number since they started recording the numbers in 2014.
The majority — 728 people — died or disappeared along the US-Mexico border. The IOM said that the main direct cause of death along the border has been drowning in the Rio Grande.
But these numbers are not deterring migrants from trying to reach the United States.
This past April, 234,000 people tried to cross the border, according to the US Customs and Border Protection.
That’s more than double the number from the same month in 2019, before the pandemic.
Wheeler said that as long as the legal path for crossing the border remains closed, more migrants will keep trying to make it across the Río Bravo.
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