Officials were first alerted to the incident in the US Border Patrol’s Del Rio region late Wednesday night by a man who was apprehended for illegally crossing the border. He told Border Patrol agents that he was part of a group that attempted to cross the river in a rubber raft that “capsized, spilling all of its occupants into the cold and fast-flowing waters,” according to Customs and Border Protection.
“Unfortunately” some of the people aboard were “swept away when the raft turned over,” said a Department of Homeland Security official. Others struggled to stay afloat and keep their heads above water, the official said.
The wife and 6-year-old child of the man who made the report were later rescued, but the body of his 10-month-old son was found several miles downriver. The 6-year-old boy was treated by medical personnel on site and then rushed to the hospital, according to CBP.
Agents were able to jump into the river and rescue some of the people involved. Five people were rescued and four were initially reported missing, one of whom was the 10-month-old. The search for the remaining three was ongoing as of Thursday evening.
“It highlights that last year, we, CBP were involved in the rescues of over 4,300 individuals,” said acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders. “Transnational criminal organizations are ruthless.”
CBP is working with those who were rescued and coordinating with local officials and the government of Mexico.
During rescue efforts, the official said that agents heard “screams coming from the river” and they “turned out to be from individuals who were stranded and struggling to stay afloat.”
“The Rio Grande is a dangerous river, it looks calm, but it has resulted in a number of rescues and deaths over the years and is one of the main ways in which migrants are at risk from the terrain and natural barriers that exist as they travel north,” said the official.
“Water rescues are up significantly this year compared to last year,” the official added, telling CNN that so far this year there are more than 200 cases of water rescues.
The official noted that the incident puts a spotlight on the change in demographics of migrants arriving at the US southern border, where children and families with young people may not people able to withstand the elements.
“It’s tragic,” said the official.
Overall, border apprehensions are higher than they have been in over a decade, but it’s also the shift in population that has created the risky situation — from single men to families and children predominantly from Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
This story has been updated.