Why one area along the US-Mexico border saw drownings triple and water rescues skyrocket more than 1000%

Border Patrol divers search for a missing 2-year-old girl in the Rio Grande.

Newly released data reveals a dramatic shift in the region along the Rio Grande over the past year -- and offers a window into the human toll of turmoil at the border.

Water-related deaths tripled in the Border Patrol's Del Rio sector from fiscal year 2018 to fiscal year 2019, according to data CNN obtained from US Customs and Border Protection. And water rescues spiked dramatically there, too, climbing by more than 1000%.

The sector, a largely rural area of southwest Texas that includes the towns of Del Rio and Eagle Pass, covers a 210-mile stretch of the Rio Grande.

Government statistics -- often touted by officials and criticized by immigrant rights advocates -- are only one snapshot of the complex realities of the 1,933-mile border between the US and Mexico. But they're an important part of the overall picture.

"They help, because they give us the trend," says Néstor Rodríguez, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who's studied deaths along the border for decades.

And while officials and advocates offer different explanations for the trend in 2019, they agree that it's troubling.

A closer look at the numbers

Drownings at the border surged into the public spotlight over the summer, when the shocking image of a father and daughter floating face-down in the Rio Grande ricocheted around the world and drew global attention to the crisis.

And in the past year, there have been numerous reports of deaths and dramatic rescues in the river -- a teenager who agents found limp in the water and helped resuscitate; the desperate, weeklong search for a Brazilian toddler whose remains were never found; a Honduran mother and son who decided to take their chances in the river because US authorities had forced them to stay in Mexico, and died trying to cross it.

With such occurrences increasingly capturing public and political attention, CNN asked CBP for the latest numbers on water-related deaths and rescues in the five Border Patrol sectors that touch the river.

The overall picture for fiscal year 2019, which ended on September 30, shows that CBP's tally of water-related deaths across all five sectors increased 4% compared to the previous year, from 46 to 48. But water-related rescues shot up more than 650%, increasing from 65 in fiscal year 2018 to 490 in fiscal year 2019.

The increase was especially dramatic in the Del Rio sector, where water-related deaths tripled. In fiscal year 2018, the Del Rio sector reported six water-related deaths; the following year, there were 18.

And agents in Del Rio handled the majority of water rescues in sectors along the Rio Grande in 2019, pulling 351 people from bodies of water in the sector -- a big jump from 31 people the previous year.

It's not a perfect picture. CBP's statistics on deaths at the border have come under fire in the past, with both advocates and academics noting that the figures significantly undercount the actual number of fatalities. A 2018 CNN investigation found that the Border Patrol had failed to count hundreds of migrant deaths on US soil. And in responding to CNN's request for data for this story, a CBP spokesman cautioned that the agency's death statistics aren't comprehensive.

"There's always an undercount. ... Their policy is they only count the bodies that they find," Rodríguez says.

While numbers may ebb and flow, Rodríguez says, one thing remains constant: the perils of crossing the river.

"Often, when people cross, they haven't done this before. They certainly are not professional river-crossers," says Rodríguez. "Even a small mistake may cost them their lives."

The professor says it's notable but not surprising to hear of water-related deaths tripling in one sector over the past year.

"It's almost like a perfect storm. ... All these conditions are coming together and creating a more dangerous matrix," he says.

Why Border Patrol says the numbers jumped

So what happened in Del Rio to make the numbers there increase so much?

Chief Raul Ortiz, the sector's top patrol agent, said the increase in water-related deaths and rescues in his sector are "both of concern." In an interview with CNN, he detailed what he said were a number of contributing factors:

• The overall number of apprehensions in Del Rio shot up dramatically, from around 15,000 in fiscal year 2018 to more than 50,000 in fiscal year 2019. "The over 250% increase was dramatic for us," he says.

• The Rio Grande -- which in some areas along the border is so shallow and narrow that it's easy to walk across -- is comparatively vast in the Del Rio sector. In one stretch, it opens up into Lake Amistad, a large reservoir. And water releases from the Amistad Dam can make water levels rise significantly. "It becomes a very treacherous area for us," he says.

• Smugglers are increasingly taking migrants to more dangerous areas of the river and ditching them. "When they do this, the smugglers don't put their own lives in danger. They only put the migrants in danger," he says. "Quite often when it comes to unaccompanied children and family units, they'll put them in makeshift rafts, inner tubes, inflatable swimming pools, you name it."

Ortiz says the pace of water rescues has slowed considerably. But it was particularly intense in the months of May, June and July, he says, adding that it took a toll on agents.

"When you're all of a sudden having to pull kids out of a river and mothers out of a river, or mothers with kids in their arms out of a river, it tests your resiliency," he says.

Advocates say dangerous US policies are to blame

Christina Patiño Houle of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network says she questions the accuracy of any CBP statistics. But she isn't surprised to hear about water-related deaths on the rise in one sector of the border. It's what she and other advocates have been warning about -- and what they fear will only get worse as more of the border wall is built.

To understand why, she says, one only needs to look south.

In Mexican cities all along the border, there are encampments full of migrants who've been forced to wait in Mexico by US authorities either as part of the practice known as metering, where officials limit how many migrants can be processed at ports of entry daily, or as a result of the policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases make their way through US courts.

Immigrant rights advocates have warned that migrants waiting in Mexico are in precarious situations and increasingly vulnerable to cartel attacks.

Border Patrol agents wouldn't have needed to rescue anyone from the river, Patiño Houle says, if they had devoted more resources to processing migrants swiftly at ports of entry. Now, she says, people forced to wait in Mexico are growing increasingly desperate to reach the United States.

"What has resulted from this is people are trying to cross in different ways. People are having to take much more dangerous routes. ... It's so obviously what is happening," she says. "People are dying because we're making policies that are killing people."

What this means for the future

Del Rio's Border Patrol chief patrol agent says he feels US policies like MPP keep migrants safer and makes them less likely to fall prey to smugglers.

"As long as these initiatives are in place, you are going to see the rescues and deaths drop as opposed to being higher," Ortiz says.

And in recent weeks, the pace of rescues on the river, too, has slowed significantly, now that both water levels and border crossing flows are notably down.

The last water rescue in his sector, Ortiz says, occurred weeks ago, on September 20.

But could the numbers shoot up again?

Ortiz says he doesn't have any doubt that they will.

"I know it will happen. I've been doing this job for 28 years, I can tell you that I always prepare for the numbers to increase" he says. "We're purchasing additional watercraft. We're training additional agents so we can ensure there are enough resources out there. I do expect it to increase. I do expect folks to continue finding themselves in trouble on that river."

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