A roundabout route to tragedy Immigrants: It is not unusual for illegal aliens to die as they try to cross from Mexico into the United States. But there was something different about the deaths that took place in the Rio Grande on Nov. 17.


BROWNSVILLE, Texas -- The surf had been picking up all weekend along the Gulf shore, churned by a ferocious east wind. The sky was clear, and the sun glinted off the foam. Out on South Padre Island, a long condo-filled barrier beach, the surfboard riders were ecstatic. Waves were coming in as high as 10 feet; it was the best surf, they were to say later, in 15 years.

As always, Tejano music -- a blend of Mexican polka and Nashville, with a little mariachi and disco thrown in -- blared from radios on the beach. Families had skipped Mass that Sunday to bask in the heat of the southernmost tip of Texas, nestled along the last bend of the Rio Grande before it meets the Gulf of Mexico in a wide dusty delta.

It was Nov. 17, just another day in Brownsville -- a flat, hard-bitten city, but one that people travel thousands of miles to reach.

Brownsville, squatting on the border, is a poor man's gateway to America.

All morning, illegal immigrants from the Mexican heartland had been wading across the mouth of the river -- east of town, a few miles down from the Padre Island surfers, and far from any roads. The waves kept building.

At noon, a group of about eight people, who could just as well have been like the others, set out from the Mexican side. An American family fishing nearby saw them wade out along the outermost sandbar toward the channel, farther out than any who had gone before. Maybe they had seen a Border Patrol van and hoped to elude it. Maybe they just didn't know what they were doing.

As the Americans watched from the north bank, the bedraggled group got deeper and deeper into the surf. They were losing their footing. Finally, a big wave swept the bar and washed them out into the Gulf.

A man who police believe to have been their "coyote" -- the guide who for a hefty sum was supposed to get them across -- commandeered a small fishing boat and set out as if to rescue them, but the surf flipped the boat over. The coyote made it back to shore alive. None of his clients did.

It was a sad but not altogether unusual event, except for the size of the surf. People do drown trying to make their way across the Rio Grande. People die in the desert. People die locked into stifling box cars.

Later that day, three bodies washed ashore. Poignantly, they came to rest on the American side. Jimmy Vasquez, an investigator with the Cameron County Sheriff's Department, was assigned the routine and unenviable task of trying to make identifications and reaching family back home.

But here was the difference. It was clear right away that these men were not from Mexico, or from Guatemala or El Salvador. Their papers were not in Spanish. This was not routine. A passport found on one of the bodies revealed that this man who had come in search of a new life was from faraway Pakistan. Jimmy Vasquez had a problem.

Certainly, law enforcement officials along the Mexican border are used to dealing with unusual goings-on.

There's a lot of traffic right now smuggling Freon for air conditioners from Mexico into the United States. The trucks that bring in Freon often smuggle frozen chickens back. The drug trade infects nearly everything; one day recently, federal officials simply sealed off the entire town of Fronton, in nearby Starr County, and arrested residents suspected of marijuana smuggling as they drove along the only road out of town. Smuggling humans across the border is a pastime that goes back generations.

South Texas likes to think of itself as different. Separated from the rest of Texas by thousands of square miles of scrubland that lies as flat as an inland sea, the towns along the Rio Grande look southward for commerce and culture. This is a region that rises and falls according to the fortunes of Mexico.

It is not the kind of place where you would expect to find the body of a man like Farakh Sullman Nagi.

Vasquez looked through the papers that had been found on the three men. They were in a language that was incomprehensible to him, but on one of the papers was what appeared to be a New York City phone number. He called it.

Yes, said the man who answered. I know Farakh. We were expecting him here.

Can someone, Vasquez asked, come here to identify him?

Let me see what I can do, the man replied. The man didn't come to Texas, but he called Farakh Nagi's family in Lahore, Pakistan. Soon the whole neighborhood knew the story, and knew that the family was desperate with grief and bewildered as to what to do.

On Nov. 20, one of the neighbors called her son, Khalid Mehmood, a 30-year-old graduate student in finance at the University of Oklahoma. She knew that Mehmood was planning a trip to Texas the next day. She asked him to go to Brownsville.

"If you are my son, if you can do something for these people, you need to do it," she told him. "They have been crying for four days."

Mehmood was on his way to visit a friend in Houston, nearly 300 miles from Brownsville. He called Jimmy Vasquez and said he was coming down. Vasquez met him at the airport and took him to the morgue in Harlingen.

Mehmood had been a year ahead of Nagi at school in Lahore. He remembered that eight years ago, Nagi had applied for a visa to come to the United States as a student but had been turned down. He knew, as well, that Nagi had never lost that dream.

And, yes, that was him. And that older man was Umar Hayyat Nagi, 47, Farakh's uncle. The third body? Unknown.

Vasquez handed Mehmood the papers he had found. Mehmood realized that they were a journal -- or perhaps an accounting -- of the trip the uncle and the nephew had taken.

The way to America, it turned out, wound through two of the last remaining Communist world capitals. From Lahore they flew to Beijing, and from Beijing to Havana. From Havana they flew to Panama, and from there they went to Costa Rica, Guatemala and finally Mexico.

In each city, they met a Pakistani businessman who, for a fee, took them in and then sent them on to the next stage. One name keeps cropping up, day after day, in city after city, and is always matched by a payment of several hundred dollars. He was, apparently, their guide -- their own Pakistani coyote, whose job it was to turn them over to the Mexican professional on the banks of the Rio Grande.

They set out from Lahore on Sept. 2, and by the time they left Matamoros, Mexico, 11 weeks later, they had spent almost $24,000.

Mehmood says they probably borrowed the money. "I'm unable to understand," he says. "I don't know why these people do like this. I just want to finish my degree and go back. But it's unemployment, you know, and inflation. Inflation is so bad there. People have to do something."

Now, with the families deeply in debt, Mehmood learned that it would cost $8,000 to fly the bodies home. His friend in Houston called some Pakistanis in New York. They passed the hat around and came up with the money.

The third man is a mystery still. He is uncircumcised, which means he isn't Muslim, but the inoculation scars on his arm are in a pattern typical of South Asia. He might be Christian or Hindu, both small minorities in Pakistan. Mehmood faxed a picture of the man back to Lahore to see if anyone recognized him.

But there have been no claimers. The morgue held the body for a week, and now is making plans for a local burial at county expense. The five others who were washed out into the Gulf that hot, windy day remain somewhere at sea.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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