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A dream of better lives, a grim ending

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002


It takes only a few moments in the broiling summer sun of Arizona's parched border with Mexico to sense how desperate is the urge of thousands of illegal immigrants. They cross the U.S. border for el norte, the north, to find better-paying work. They risk death evading border patrols by crossing remote parts of the bleak, sometimes 115-degree Sonoran Desert. Across the entire southern U.S. border, more than 2,600 people every day are taken back to Mexico. Some do not make it at all.

Economic opportunity is a powerful draw. Four and a half months ago, it pulled two young men, Roberto Esparza, 23, and cousin Omar Esparza, 17, to leave their poor town in Mexico on a perilous journey. They planned to sneak across the Texas border and, with the help of hired smugglers called coyotes, make their way to Florida. To Sarasota, to be precise.

But things went terribly wrong. Instead of reaching Florida, Roberto and Omar became two of 11 victims found dead last month inside a locked rail car in Denison, Iowa. They had all died from extreme heat and dehydration. Authorities are still working with a forensic anthropologist to identify the remains.

This is a sad tale of risk and hardship, of poor people in a country bordering the world's richest nation in search of better lives. It is also a nasty reminder of how much Florida's -- and much of the United States' -- growth relies on the labor of migrants who live largely undocumented. They are part of the country's hidden labor economy that harvests crops, builds houses, changes hotel beds, washes dishes and tends children.

Roberto Esparza had crossed the border twice before, once on foot and once by plane, to find work in an Indiana shoe factory and in Sarasota. In Florida, he used his ironworking skills to install patio doors and swimming pools. The $40 he could make in less than one day's work in Florida would take a lucky week of welding jobs in his poor farming village back home.

For Omar, who worked in a tortilla factory, the U.S. trip was his first. He decided to accompany Roberto after learning that he would soon be a father and in need of more money.

Sarasota hardly seems the first place that comes to mind as a destination for illegal Mexican workers. Florida's rural farmland, yes. But an upscale coastal city?

Like an increasing number of high-growth areas, Sarasota hosts a large and growing population of Mexicans -- some illegal, some not -- who help fill the many construction, landscaping and menial-skill jobs that would otherwise go begging. The Tampa Bay area is no different. That Mexicans often will take such jobs for less pay than U.S. citizens, well, all the better for our local economy, right?

Roberto was from a poor town called Los Conos. Omar lived nearby. The town and 23 other villages make up the El Llano municipality in Aguascalientes state, about 260 miles northwest of Mexico City.

Florida and El Llano, it turns out, are practically sisters. Local Mexican authorities say at least 600 of El Llano's 16,000 people work in the United States, most of them in Florida. The economics are simple. The jobless rate in El Llano hovers near 30 percent.

We gripe when U.S. jobs are lost to lower-paid workers in places like Mexico. But El Llano's biggest employer, a textile plant, is in turn losing jobs to China. Money sent home from migrants in the United States makes up Mexico's third-largest source of income, but El Llano has not benefited as much as other areas of the country.

* * *

What happened to Roberto and Omar Esparza?

A grim picture of their last journey is emerging.

In Los Conos, Roberto had a modest welding shop in his mother's garage. He had a wife, a 14-month-old son named Roberto Jr. and a slow start to a mud-brick-walled home of his own. To get ahead, he contacted a known local trafficker in migrants to help him get across the U.S. border for a third time. For $1,500 fees, the coyote would help Roberto and Omar get to Sarasota.

On June 10, Roberto kissed his wife and left by bus for the Texas border with Omar and a second cousin. By June 14, the trio joined about 30 others in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. There they secretly hopped a train they were told was bound for Houston, where they would be released and sent overland to Sarasota.

Roberto and Omar hid with nine others in a Union Pacific rail car called a grain hopper, with registration number GVSR518018, and entered the United States at 2:21 p.m. June 14. Most of the 30 (including Roberto's second cousin) were soon discovered by border patrol agents. Roberto and Omar were in a car that evidently went unchecked.

When the train departed from Brownsville, it did not head to Houston. Instead, by most accounts, the rail car traveled to a Union Pacific storage yard in Oklahoma. There it sat untouched for months before being sent to Denison, Iowa, on Oct. 13.

Officials believe the 11 victims were trapped inside a grain hopper that, to keep its contents clean and dry, had no ventilation and two hatches that could not be opened from inside. They had been entombed in the car since entering it in June. In Denison, grain elevator workers preparing to clean the car discovered the remains. They used a torch to cut an opening in the side of the grain car to ease removal of the bodies.

After more than four months and heat that reached 150 degrees, what remains of the bodies -- seven men, four women -- will take months to identify. One body carried a voter card registered to Roberto Esparza. A school document carried Omar Esparza's name.

It is one of the deadliest incidents of its kind since July 1987, when border patrol agents discovered 18 dead Mexican men who had been trapped inside a locked boxcar in Sierra Blanca, Texas. While Omar's whereabouts remained unknown, his body lying in Iowa, his child was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Nobody's sure how many Mexicans try to make it over the U.S. border. But the number is dropping because of heightened U.S. border patrol efforts since last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and because the weaker U.S. economy offers fewer job opportunities.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service says it made about 955,000 arrests along the border this year. That's the lowest count in at least a decade.

Since you started reading this story, dozens of Mexicans seeking jobs and better pay have just crossed the U.S. border. Some will find work. Others will be caught and returned to Mexico. A few will die making the crossing.

Like Roberto and Omar Esparza, eager to reach Sarasota, all of them are poor. As the Los Angeles Times reported, when a collection back in Los Conos was taken up for the Esparzas, the sympathy for the family translated into just $69.05 from 44 donors.

That's $1.57 apiece.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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