PHOENIX -- He was once considered a lucky survivor, one of a handful of people who had managed to stay alive during a harrowing border crossing that left 14 illegal immigrants dead in the Arizona desert.
Now, 20-year-old Jesus Lopez-Ramos is accused of being one of the smugglers that led them there, and federal authorities suggested they may seek the death penalty.
According to court papers, Lopez-Ramos, two other guides and about 30 would-be immigrants, ages 16 to 35, began the trip in Sonoyta, Lopez-Ramos' hometown in the Mexican state of Sonora.
On May 19, they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Arizona. They drove for about an hour and a half, then set out on foot.
The group had been told they would only have to walk a short distance to a highway, according to court papers.
Instead, they were facing 70 miles of dry, bleak terrain known as "The Devil's Path." Their trek would become the deadliest crossing at the border since 1987, when 18 Mexican men died in a locked railroad boxcar near Sierra Blanca, Texas.
The second day of the trip, with water running out, one guide and three immigrants turned back, court papers say. The documents don't say whether they were among the 14 found dead.
On the morning of the third day, Lopez-Ramos and another guide told those remaining that they would go fetch water. They took $90 from the men, promised to return and told the immigrants to stay put.
The immigrants said they started walking when the guides didn't return and resorted to drinking their urine and trying to get what little moisture they could from cactus to stay alive. The first group the Border Patrol found was 30 miles from the interstate and had spent more than four days in temperatures reaching 115 degrees.
Lopez-Ramos had made it within five miles of Interstate 8, the group's destination, when he was picked up. Another man was found dead nearby; court papers and officials didn't say whether he was believed to be another smuggler.
Lopez-Ramos has been charged with bringing in illegal aliens, conspiracy to bring in illegal aliens and harboring illegal aliens. When individuals die as a result of the smuggler's action, the maximum penalty is death, federal officials said in announcing his arrest.
His attorney, Bruce Yancey, didn't return a telephone message seeking comment.
The other survivors, Mexicans from the states of Veracruz and Guerrero, had all been released into Border Patrol custody by Tuesday after being treated for severe dehydration and related kidney damage.
James Metcalf, the Yuma-based attorney for the survivors except the suspected guide, said they were being held as material witnesses and were to be transferred Wednesday to a federal detention center in Florence. He planned to ask for their release or immediate return to Mexico.
The bodies of the 14 found dead were to be returned to their families on Wednesday, said Eduardo Rea, a deputy consul at the Mexican Consulate in Calexico, Calif. He declined to comment on the arrests.
Family members in the poor, highland villages of Veracruz said the men had been seeking a better life after plummeting coffee prices left them no other choice.
Since 1998, 991 people have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, most from heat exposure or drowning, according to the Border Patrol. More than 5,000 others have been rescued by agents.
Meanwhile, border agents searched for three missing men Tuesday after an unconscious and dehydrated immigrant told authorities he feared three men accompanying him were lost in the deserts south and west of Tucson.
The man told agents that he and the other men paid a smuggler $800 each to lead them to Phoenix but that the smuggler abandoned them after telling them he would return with water.
And on Sunday, a Border Patrol helicopter pilot spotted the body of a man whose nephew said had been traveling with a group of about 14 others being smuggled from Mexico when the elderly man no longer could keep up and was left behind.
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