NOGALES, Mexico -- They had made it across the border, 20 of them, through a hole in the barbed-wire fence in the dark Arizona desert. Juan Carlos Reyes Hernandez, 25, with two children at home and a third on the way, was among them. He planned to work in construction and send his earnings back home.
He had promised to pay the "coyote," or smuggler, two months' wages to lead him safely to Tucson. Instead, he walked into a trap. The group was less than a mile into the United States when three men with pistols set upon them. Hernandez believes the coyote and the gunmen were working together.
"He delivered us to these guys," Hernandez said last week, telling his story in an immigrant aid office in the border town of Nogales. "They took our money and they took part of our food that we had for our trip. The group in total ended up losing $2,500."
They were the victims of border bandits -- gangs of armed men that have made the U.S. border with Mexico an increasingly violent place in the past year. The gangs target illegal immigrants who cross the mesquite-studded desert by the thousands each night, robbing them of cash, assaulting those who resist and raping the women, officials say. The bandits contributed to a 50 percent increase in deaths last year among immigrants crossing the Arizona border.
Immigrants are not the only targets. Last year in Arizona, U.S. Border Patrol agents were assaulted a record 365 times -- more than double the 2004 total. Ranchers whose families have raised cattle in southern Arizona for generations are selling their land and moving out. And officials at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, south of Tucson, are worried that the attacks will force them to close parts of the refuge.
The rise in violence comes amid a growing public fervor for a border crackdown. Last year hundreds of armed Minutemen began patrolling the border themselves, and fears that illegal immigrants will take away jobs from Americans and strain hospitals and schools have spurred passage of anti-immigrant laws in several states.
Seeking middle ground, President Bush and business leaders support a "guest worker" program that would allow immigrants to enter the U.S. to work for a fixed period of time. But many Republicans call that unacceptable and want a tighter border and zero tolerance for illegal immigrants already in the U.S.
In the past decade, the Border Patrol has fortified urban areas such as El Paso and San Diego, building tall fences and flooding border towns with agents. As those efforts have pushed outward from the cities, immigrants have been funneled into the Arizona desert, where the fences remain porous and the Border Patrol less of a presence.
But the desert is a virtual no man's land, where bandits can easily prey on immigrants far from the watchful eyes of law enforcement. Human smugglers and drug smugglers battle for the best routes, and the coyotes fight each other over groups of immigrants, who pay steep prices for their passage.
"The reports have picked up in the last few months," said Mitch Ellis, manager of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. "These bandits operate in a very organized way. They target illegal immigrants because they're carrying several hundred dollars and much of their life's possessions."
Last year, 267 illegal immigrants died while crossing into Arizona, according to the U.S. Border Patrol, making it the deadliest year since record-keeping began in 1993. Most were victims of dehydration or exposure -- deaths that have increased because the immigrants now travel routes that are longer and farther from help. But an increasing number were shot or beaten. A list of the causes of death reads like a police blotter:
Gunshot wound to head. Gunshot wound to torso. Gunshot wounds of chest and neck and sharp force injury of neck. Multiple injuries due to blunt force trauma.
"There are more and more people willing and ready to steal from them and attack them as they cross because they know that they're vulnerable," said Enrique Enriquez Palafox, the Nogales head for Grupo Beta, Mexico's official immigrant aid group. His 10 aid workers cover more than 30 miles of the border, and this year they have rescued 155 people.
Ninety percent of them, Enriquez said, were victims of a robbery or assault.
Responding to the crisis, the Mexican government now gives immigrants a pamphlet illustrating the dangers. It shows a bandit pointing a gun at a helpless immigrant, his clothes tattered and a rattlesnake at his feet.
"I tell them: You will get tired. You will be assaulted. You will maybe even lose your life," Enriquez said. "And they think: `No, that happens to other people, not to me.'"